Category Archives: Guest-Worthy

POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

We’re reaching the end of pomegranate season here, which makes me a little sad.

There’s something downright seductive about the jewel-bright and difficult seeds of the fruit that tempted Persephone in the Underworld, the same fruit from which grenadine was originally made, its fuschia infamously staining to fingers, lips, pants, and shirt-fronts.

For years my father peeled me pomegranates. It was the only time I saw him wear an apron, seemingly wine-stained and spattered, tied delicately around his waist. He would buy the fruit by the case and shuck them, like pearl-laden oysters, by the half-dozen. Every fall a Tupperware container full of seeds kept constant in my family’s refrigerator, rid of their pith and ready for my consumption.

So now, the seemingly pain-in-the-ass task of undoing a pomegranate, exploring its honeycombed chambers and gently prying out the fruit (which is much easier to do when the pomegranate is submerged in a bowl of water, by the way)—it has become a kind of enactment for me, something deliberate and meaningful, connected to him and memory.

Also, you know, pomegranates are just plain delicious. You can use them in desserts or salads but I just like to throw back giant handfuls and chomp away. A few weeks ago, for a book club brunch, I wanted to make a fruit salad with some pomegranate seeds I had stored up in the fridge. The only other fruit I had in the house, though, were some Bosc pears, my go-to morning “It’s 10:00 and I am HUNGRY but it’s too early to each lunch, isn’t it?” snack.

In order to fancy things up a bit, I poached the pears before serving them with the pomegranate seeds, pouring a bit of the reduced poaching liquid over the whole dish.  My lovely book club ladies raved, and so I had to pass the idea along. This little dish would make a wonderful addition to a weekend brunch and could also serve as a light, elegant dinner party dessert.

POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

Even when pomegranates are not available as an accompaniment, poached pears can be an elegant dessert. You can serve them warm, with ice cream, atop a tart or cake, alongside butter cookies, or with some cinnamon-spiked whipped cream.

When choosing a wine for poaching, go with something you know and like. Of course, a sweeter white will work well, as will a white with fruit or spice notes.

ingredients:

1 bottle white wine (I used this Viognier)

3-4 Bosc or Anjou pears

¼ cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

1 whole vanilla bean

5-6 cardamom pods, lightly smashed

3-4 whole cloves

seeds from one pomegranate half

Pour the wine into a heavy saucepan, tossing in the spices. Add the sugar & stir until it dissolves. Heat the poaching liquid over medium heat until small bubbles form and wisps of heat rise from the top of the pan.

While waiting for the liquid to simmer, peel & core the pears. You may wish to poach them in halves, for a dramatic presentation, or in quarters or even slices—it’s up to you. Depending on how you slice them, you may have to poach in batches.

Once the liquid’s ready, cook the pears until they are tender, approximately 15-20 minutes. Adjust the heat so that the liquid does not come up past a gentle boil. When the pears are done, remove them and set aside, either to cool or to serve.

Strain the spices out of the saucepan and crank up the heat, bringing the liquid up to a boil. Reduce as much or as little as you like—there’s no wrong way to do this! Serve the pears warm or cold, on a bed of pomegranate seeds & doused with some of the syrupy liquid.

(Chances are, you’ll have at least a cup or two of poaching liquid/syrup leftover. Don’t throw it out! You can use it to moisten a pound or layer cake, combine it with powdered sugar for a flavorful icing, or play around using it as a cocktail mixer.)

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APPLE TART

For today’s post (and I hope you won’t mind), instead of writing something new, I’ve reprinted an excerpt from an essay called “Playing the Goddess” that I published a few years ago.  At this time of year, my memory and nostalgia work overtime and I find myself longingly and gratefully thinking of my school’s Christmas pageant and the year I got to be Brown Mary. (St. Mary’s girls, if you’re out there, know that I’m thinking of you & sending much love this holiday.)

My parents sent me to St. Mary’s Episcopal School because it was the best girls’ education money could buy in Memphis, Tennessee. Unlike some immigrant parents, they were unconcerned by the school’s religious affiliation; my mother herself was educated by Roman Catholic nuns, and taught at a parochial school before she was married. And both my parents appreciated the incredibly diverse and tolerant religious landscape of India. Their friends, festivals, school holidays, symbols, and rituals ran the gamut from Hindu to Buddhist to Sikh to Christian; the lines of observance between these faiths were blurry. As my parents had discovered, so they passed on to me: Hinduism is a big umbrella; there’s a lot of room underneath.

So I was free to delve into the cool, quiet landscape of Anglican Christianity. Ever the eager student, I paid close attention in Mrs. Williams’ third-grade Bible class, sitting right in the front and peering up at her through my thick glasses. She would sit in the “teacher’s chair,” with us on the floor, and place her soft, framed felt board up against the chalkboard. Felt figures of Moses or Jesus appeared, with baskets of fish or the burning bush. Naturally, I had more questions than anyone else. Each story was new to me, and I was hooked. An avid reader, I discovered that the Bible was full of wild, fascinating stories that seemed more grownup than anything else I was allowed to read. The heartbreak and suffering of Jesus held me tight. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as a kindly, loving, sad man. And I began to notice that all the girls around me wore crosses around their necks, connected to him in a way that I wasn’t. While I sat behind, they walked up to the altar to receive communion. These were the limits of my belonging.

At the same time, I relished being different. Christianity was my exotic, but I was exotic to everyone else. My friends and classmates started asking me questions about what I believed, how my religion was different. I stopped taking for granted the Sanskrit prayers my family and I said and started asking about their meaning. My parents found books in English that re-told the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, Hinduism’s great epics, full of murder, intrigue, sex, and miracles to rival the most fantastic parts of the Old Testament. As my connection to my own religion grew, so did my fondness for high-church worship, the pomp and circumstance, traditional liturgy, and booming organ. The sensory onslaught of an Episcopalian church service is somewhat tamed-down in comparison to that of my birth religion, but both know how to put on a good show.

At times, I struggled with just how far to join in, whether it was alright to say “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” when I didn’t actually believe in him. No doubt, many of my fellow classmates were also skeptical or uncertain in their beliefs, but they had the luxury of habit and belonging. If their internal landscape didn’t match the external, no one was the wiser. But from the outset, I looked like a non-believer and I weighed my participation very carefully. As a Hindu, I was frustrated by the way my culture and religious traditions were often appropriated and mishandled by outsiders. It was important to me not to commit the same crime against Christianity.

Of course, I felt like an outsider in Hinduism too. Connected through my parents and centuries worth of traditions, my own personal stake in Hinduism was never as grounded as I thought it should be. Church was more interesting than temple; at least I could understand what everyone was saying and singing. The guilt I felt over my half-hearted engagement was tempered by a desire to protect and uphold my heritage, a duty which was important to me. Some first-generation kids push as far away from the “home country” as possible; I didn’t want to be one of them. Still, I knew that my main tie to Hinduism was nostalgic, not immediate. And as was the case with Christianity, my personal affiliation had everything to do with the group in which I wanted to belong. In both religions, I felt equally at home—that is to say, halfway like an intruder in both cases.

Over time, the splitting of theological hairs became less important to me, and the power of community, worship, and tradition took over. Whether I believed in the stories or not, they were good stories, powerful ones which had lasted for thousands of years. The cost of separating myself out from either group seemed too big a price to pay. So I bowed my head and heard myself repeating the same words as a church-full of people, the Apostles’ Creed, which I learned by heart. After I was asked to speak in chapel during Religious Diversity Week, I became known as the “Indian Oprah” for the way I had weaved my way through the pews with a cordless mike, answering students’ questions about my religion. At home, I enacted and absorbed what my parents placed before me—no eating meat on Tuesdays, wearing new clothes on Diwali—trusting that it was all somehow important for continuity’s sake. I felt to myself like a believer, if a loosely defined one. And there were always two creeds which I never had a problem saying, or meaning: the first from the Bhagavad Gita, modern Hinduism’s most sacred text, the second from St. Mary’s daily chapel service. In the first, Lord Krishna is instructing one of his faithful, Arjuna, about the proper way to live one’s life. Any man who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way, my friend. The second ended each chapel service at St. Mary’s, Monday through Friday, from my fifth grade to my twelfth grade year. Our chaplain said, Go in peace, to love and serve to Lord. And we responded, Thanks be to God.

St. Mary’s has many long-standing traditions (they’ve been educating young women since 1847), but my favorite has always been the Christmas pageant. This event has two sets of participants: little girls and big girls. The little girls are the second-and-third graders, who dress in red cassocks and white cottas and stand on risers to sing the evening’s program of Christmas hymns. The big girls are the seniors, who are grouped to form living tableaux, displayed while the little girls sing their songs. Each tableau is modeled after a painting of the Annunciation, Nativity, or Adoration done by one of the French or Italian masters. A shadowbox, about the size of a walk-in closet, was built long ago for this purpose, and is placed at the top of the red velvet stairs which lead up to the altar of the church. Christmas trees, left plain, are brought in to block the rest of the altar from view, so that big girls can hide behind, getting ready for their turn.

For seniors at St. Mary’s, the Christmas Pageant is second in importance only to graduation. To be part of the tableaux, seniors have to have been at St. Mary’s since at least the first grade. That makes eleven or more years during which the little girls have grown into big ones, watching the Pageant every year, sitting in the dark of the church, watching the beautiful seniors sit very still against the bright lights of the shadowbox. Each year, the senior class and high school faculty elect six girls to play the part of Mary. It is an honor which carries weight. The girls playing Mary should be worthy of their role, should have demonstrated love and compassion and sacrifice during their time at St. Mary’s. The school motto, “light and life,” should be exemplified in them. I feel lucky to be able to say my class took that vote very seriously, beyond a popularity contest. Even though we were big girls, there was still something about the idea of Mary, full of grace. She who gave birth to the Savior of Men. She who raised the Son of God.

With this in mind, we voted, and I became the first non-Caucasian, non Judeo-Christian Mary in school history.  “Brown Mary,” my friends and classmates called me, lovingly. It felt like a victory, one in which we all shared, injecting new life into an old tradition, scandalizing the church ladies a little bit. “Your skin color is probably more historically accurate than anyone else’s,” my high school history teacher said, and we arranged for my fellow Hindu, Amrita to be my Joseph. Behold the holy family, dark-skinned and authentic. Me, the mother, vehicle, and proud.

I got very sick the night before the pageant, amidst the swirl of exams and college applications which came with Christmas that year. It was bronchitis, and the doctor at the minor medical clinic warned me that it could get worse. “You need to rest, young lady,” he told me. “I know you won’t mind if I make you stay home from school tomorrow,” winking, thinking he was doing me a favor. “You don’t understand,” I protested. “I have to go.” We went back and forth like this for a while; I think he thought I was crazy. It isn’t easy to explain in five minutes what twelve years has built inside you. “Okay,” he relented. “I’ll give you a strong antibiotic and a painkiller. You’re going to have to try to break your fever—otherwise, you’re still contagious, so no go.”

I slept that night, exhausted and upset. The next morning, I hovered around 100 degrees, but was adamant that the fever would break. I had to be at school by noon—that much leeway my principal would give—the pageant started at two-thirty. My mother wrapped me in blankets, brought me warm liquids, lemon and honey for my aching throat. She chanted for me in Sanskrit from the prayer room down the hall and took my temperature every half-hour. “I know better than to argue,” she sighed. But we were both surprised at how hard I was trying. This ritual, this honor I had earned, this seeming contradiction, I wasn’t about to let go. Goddess, mother, Mary, someone. Please. Make me the vessel, give me your strength. I want to do this.

At eleven-fifteen my fever broke.

My mom walked me into the church where twenty-nine other girls were rehearsing their scenes and posing for photographs. The handful of girls standing in the shadowbox at the time caught collective sight of me and called out. “Nishta!” The room turned and I was flooded, overwhelmed with gladness, their gladness; that I was okay, that I was there. “You are supposed to be here,” they said. “You have to be our Brown Mary.”

Immediately, girls went to work on my transformation. It’s all a bit of a medicated blur—I felt woozy and weepy and wholly grateful. I sat on a hard pew in the bright and sunny side-chapel while they took care of me. Sarah, da Vinci’s Mary, dashed out in her silver Volvo to buy me chicken noodle, tomato, and cream of mushroom soups, because she wasn’t sure which one I would like. Kemper, da Vinci’s angel Gabriel, took charge of my makeup. “Now close your eyes, sweetie,” she said in her sweet, round, Southern voice. I felt the cool, black pencil against the edge of my warm eyelid, heard the second- and third-graders rehearsing in the background.

When it was time for my tableaux, I scrambled into place along with Amrita and our three friends, playing shepherds. We had a few moments in the dark before the next song began, and I remember being afraid that I was going to accidentally move; blink my eyes too much, scratch my nose, or, worst of all, pass out. I still didn’t feel very well, and I was afraid it might show. But then I felt Amrita’s hand on my shoulder from behind, where she stood as my Joseph. And that blue velvet curtain opened, and the lights came on, from either side of box, incredibly bright and incredibly hot. The whole thing felt a little bit ridiculous, sitting in a pine box, dressed up like an unwed Jewish mother from two thousand years ago.

I tried to quiet my mind and focus on the rows of hushed and darkened heads that watched me in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, the little girls, standing oh-so-politely on metal risers, their stocking feet tucked into pair after pair of black Mary Janes. I heard their baby gasps for breath as they tried to make it all the way through the “Gloo-ooo-oooo-oooria” and into “excelsis Deo.” In that moment, I realized that thin line between the ridiculous and the magical is governed by belief. An opera is only successful if its audience is willing to suspend its cynicism for a little while and dive in. Ritual works the same way.

After my turn, I joined my friends, huddled down in the darkness, hidden behind the strategically placed Christmas greenery. The cool, plush carpet was a relief; the girls had even sneaked a ginger ale onto the altar for me. Eyes sparkled all around as we, with muted voices, began to sing along with the little ones, who, in a handful of years, would take our place.

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
O the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir,
Sweet singing in the choir.


APPLE TART

for the crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

for the filling:

4 apples (I used McIntosh), peeled*, cored, & thinly sliced
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

for the glaze (optional):

½ cup apricot jam
juice of half a lemon

oven: 350˚
pan: 9- or 10-inch tart pan (preferably with a removable bottom) OR pie pan

Butter the pan thoroughly & set aside. To make the dough, cream the butter & sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer at high speed. Reduce speed to medium and add the egg. In a separate bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, & salt together—then gently add to the mixer bowl.

Press the dough (which will be soft) evenly into the tart pan, being sure to go all the way up the sides. Arrange the apples on top of the crust in any pattern that pleases you. Combine the cinnamon & sugar, then sprinkle generously over the apples.  Dot the apples with a few extra tablespoons of butter.

I find it’s easiest to place the tart pan on a baking sheet and to place the whole thing in the oven. Bake the tart for 45-55 minutes. Look for a lightly browned crust and set filling. Cool slightly on a wire rack.

A glaze is certainly not necessary but is easy to do and adds another level of flavor. To make the glaze, simply combine the jam & lemon juice in a small saucepan over low heat. Use a spoon or spatula to break up any clumps, bringing the glaze up to a boil. Remove from heat and brush or dribble over the tart.

Listen, this tart needs NOTHING (no. thing.) to be delicious, but it certainly won’t hurt the tart’s feelings (or mine) if you decide throw a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Myself? I like to top with homemade, lightly-sweetened whipped cream that’s also been spiked with Amaretto. Hey, it’s the holidays!

*As you can see, I did not choose to peel the apples this time around, just to see what would happen. No one complained–in fact, it was promptly devoured-but it’s more traditional to peel the apples, so do whatever feels best to you. Note that the peel will add texture.

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ALFAJORES

You know how, once you learn a new word or buy a new car, you’re suddenly seeing incarnations of them everywhere you turn?

Back in November, Gemma Petrie over at Pro Bono Baker posted a recipe for alfajores and I knew I had to make them.  She has been a long-time blog crush of mine, with her spare aesthetic and sophisticated taste, and I have yet to try a recipe of hers that didn’t become a favorite.

During a trip to Argentina, Gemma and her boyfriend Nick fell for these soft, dulce-de-leche filled cookies and, lucky for us, Nick set about creating his own recipe for them when they returned.

Of course, once I made a batch of alfajores, they began to appear in every corner.  At my nine-course-birthday-dessert-tasting.  At our first holiday party of the season.  In my dreams the night after the first batch had all been eaten.  These gentle cookies are perfect with tea or for an after-dinner alternative to a heavy dessert.  If you still have room in your holiday baking agenda, I urge you to give these a whirl, or at least bookmark them for the future.

Regarding the dulce de leche required for this recipe, I point you to another blog crush of mine, Ashley Rodriguez of Not Without Salt.  Her luscious photography is a match only for the creamy milk caramel that results from her almost stupidly simple method of making dulce de leche: simmer a can of sweetened condensed milk in a large pot for three hours.  No, seriously.  It’s like magic.  Tasty, tasty magic.

I’m copying the recipe exactly as it originally appeared, but there are subtle variations you can make with these cookies .  Size, for example—the first batch I made were much larger than the ones pictured here, as I cut the rounds using a water glass.  I also sprinkled sea salt on the caramel layer before sandwiching the cookie pieces together.  For the second batch (pictured here), I employed a small biscuit cutter and dipped the cookies in powdered sugar before sandwiching and omitted the sea salt.

This week I’ll make a third batch for my in-laws, who are headed into town to share Christmas with us.  Jill’s father always has a hankering for something sweet, and I think he’ll like the way that these pillowy cookies go with his coffee. Here’s hoping you all have houses full of loved ones, good eats, & joy this week.

NICK’S ALFAJORES
Recipe from Gemma Petrie of Pro Bono Baker, posted with permission

ingredients:
1 ¾ cup flour
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
8 T butter, room temperature
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 T milk
1 tsp. vanilla
15 oz. dulce de leche*

method:

Combine flour, salt, sugar and baking soda in a bowl.  Mix in the butter and then work in the egg yolks, milk and vanilla. Shape the dough into two separate balls, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for about two hours.

Preheat oven to 325˚.  Roll out each ball of dough on a slightly floured surface to 1/4 inch thick. Cut using a two-inch cookie cutter and transfer cookies to baking sheets covered with silpat mats. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tops of the cookies appear dry, but not so long that the cookies brown.

Allow the cookies to cool on a wire rack.  When cool, spread half the cookies with dulce de leche and top with the other half.  Serve with a café con leche for an irresistible treat.  A traditional way to serve the cookies is to roll the sides in shredded coconut.  We’re not big coconut fans, so we left ours plain.

*We used dulce de leche that we brought back from Argentina.  Feel free to use store bought or make your own.  There are plenty of traditional recipes out there, but I was extremely intrigued to find this recipe from the lovely blog Not Without Salt that calls for simply cooking a can of condensed milk in boiling water.  Brilliant.

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FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: A FOOTBALL-INSPIRED SERIES

Stephanie had an African-American father and a Puerto-Rican mother, and taught me how to make tostones, twice-fried, salty plantains. By luck of the subletting draw, I was her roommate for six weeks one summer in D.C., and I still remember her frying up a storm in our tiny Columbia Heights kitchen.  I stood with Jill, who was visiting for July fourth, over a paper-towel lined plate, waiting eagerly for the next finished batch and crowding our good-natured cook.

plantains frying again

Plantains had never been presented to me this way before, with a crust of toothy resistance on the outside and smooth goodness on the inside.  Though I lost touch with Stephanie soon after my sublet was up, I still make tostones the way I learned from her—frying once, then smashing each slice inside a Ziploc bag with the back of a water glass before returning it to the hot oil a second time.  A generous sprinkling of salt, and there is arguably no better accompaniment for a cold beer on a hot day.

Is anything more universally satisfying than fried food?  Is there a single human culture that has yet to discover the joys of dropping, well, just about anything into a pot of scalding-hot oil?  The French, of course, have given us their pommes frites, our beloved fries.  Japan is the home of everything tempura-battered, and samosas are now ubiquitous at Indian restaurants.  Italians perfected the art of frying baby artichokes and succulent rings of calamari, and Southern fried chicken is a near-universal craving.  As my mother in one of her cruder moments put it, you could probably fry shit and it would taste good.

lone plantain

I must make a confession.  I’ve become one of *those* people.  Those people who structure their entire fall around a televised game schedule, who politely decline invitations that conflict with home games, who scream and yell for a bunch of guys running around on a well-tended field of turf.  I’ve crossed over to the dark side now.  I’m officially a football fan.

My father did his best to cultivate my appreciation for the sport when I was younger, so I at least had a basic sense for how to watch the game.  But football never “clicked” with me until last year. Jill and Sonya, who have long been avid fans of the game, played fantasy football for the first time.  And when I say played, I mean became obsessed with.  While their team, the Junky Cowboys (not a comment on the state of Dallas’ team, rather an inside joke resulting from confusion over the band name, Cowboy Junkies) didn’t win the league championship (still a sore subject), fantasy football became the vehicle through which I learned to love football.

It’s a famous joke that football is the most widely-practiced religion down here in Texas—I think that’s probably true.  We have our rituals, our superstitions, our weekly gatherings, a shared sense of purpose, and our foods.  On Sunday around noon, while Jill and Sonya are obsessing over stats and lineups, I’m usually messing around in the kitchen, whipping up something to snack on over the course of the afternoon.  All of that screaming at the TV works up an appetite, you know.

So the Feelin’ Kinda Sunday Series will feature various football snacks, from the savory to the sweet, that have been met with success in my NFL-happy household.  Every Friday from now until the Super Bowl, I’ll share recipes that will translate easily to the weekend.  Even if your house is not a football house, I think you’ll be able to find a place for these goodies.  As always, we’ll feature a random-but-seasonally-appropriate smattering of posts on Tuesdays–coming up next week, Part II of Anders Wine Tasting Basics & some really, really good cookies.

In the meantime, I’m curious, Blue Jean Gourmet readers, are you into football?  And what’s your favorite thing to eat fried?

TOSTONES (twice-fried, salty plantains)

These are Sonya’s absolute favorites; I try to make them regularly so as to keep bribing her into taking gorgeous pictures for me!  While a bit time-consuming to make, tostones are totally worth it.  If you are not using to frying things at home, don’t be intimidated–these don’t require all that much oil, and are pretty forgiving.  While they’re lovely plain, we also L-O-V-E them dipped in guacamole.

Plantains are part of the banana family, but contain much more starch, like a potato.  If the idea of a fried banana wigs you out, don’t worry, I feel you.  These taste far milder and fry up beautifully–a perfect crunch on the outside, with a creamy give on the inside.  Look for plantains that are ripe (yellow with a few brown spots) but still firm.

ingredients: plantains & guac

2-3 plantains

canola or a similarly-flavorless vegetable oil

salt

To peel the plantains, slice off both ends with a sharp knife.  Then run your knife down the length of each plantain (don’t cut too deep!), front and back.  Remove the peel.  Cut each plantain into thick slices, about ½ inch thick.  Genly press the slices between paper towels  to remove excess moisture.

Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet with a shallow (¼ inch) pool of oil.  Heat on medium-high until the oil is shimmering–test it with a plantain–if the oil immediately bubbles around the slice, it’s ready.  You may need to adjust the temperature of the oil as you go, if your plantains are taking too long or, conversely, getting too brown.

Fry the plantains in batches until they are light brown, about 2 minutes on each side.  Remove to a paper-towel lined plate while finishing.  Turn the heat down on the oil while you smash the plantains.  To smash, simply place each plantain (you can do a few at a time) inside a Ziploc bag and smush with the bottom of a heavy glass.

Once all of the plantains have been smashed, re-heat your oil for a second frying.  Because the second round of plantains will be thinner, I recommend you heat your oil a bit less–say, if your stove was at a “7″ the first time around, turn it down to a “5.”

Fry the plantains, once again in batches, until golden brown.  Serve hot, sprinkled with coarse salt.

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BRIE-STUFFED APRICOTS

School started this week, and I’m afraid I can’t really hold a coherent thought in my head at this moment.  Therefore, this has become the post of miscellany.

apricots on green platter

Observe:

a)    Each year, I create a “Word Tree” with my students on the back wall of my room.  Students are asked to choose words in any language that appeal to them because of what they mean or how they sound.  In past years, I have had words in Hebrew, Hindi, Spanish, Polish, Latin, German, & Portuguese—and English words ranging from “indignant” to “giggly” to “ineluctable” to “satiate.”  My students always manage to impress me and get themselves excited about words, which is pretty cool, no?

Since I always ask my colleagues, friends, and family to contribute words to the word tree, I’d like, this year, to ask you, lovely blog readers, to throw out some of your favorite words.  Remember, any word, any language, because you love what it means or how it sounds.  Share away!  I’ll add you to the tree next week.

b)     Speaking of words, I’m obsessed with the Online Etymology Dictionary.  It’s been fun for my students and me to discover where words come from, like “miscellany,” which comes from the Latin miscere, meaning “to mix,” and “lollapalooza,” descending from lallapalootza in an unspecified American Indian language, meaning “remarkable person or thing.” (One of my students totally brought this word in; have I mentioned I love my students?)

c)    There’s a very cool jewelry artist here in Houston named Melissa Borrell who makes really lovely, unusual pendants, earrings, and other decorative works.  The thing is, she’s not going to be in Houston long and her moving means there are a bunch of fantastic pieces on sale.

d)    Next week, our super-cute-and-knowledgeable sommelier returns with a post on Wine Tasting Basics!

e)    I have three, long, hand-written letters from three fantastic friends to respond to this weekend.  Damn, I’m a lucky girl.

f)    You never thought I’d get to the food, did you?  Well, it’s a little bit miscellaneous, too.  The inspiration came from one of the many receptions/dinners/galas that we have been to in the last handful of years on account of Jill’s work.  Some are really fun, some are really boring, but since I always enjoy getting dressed up and eating free food, I’m a pretty easy spouse to drag to said events.

At some point, I filed this idea away in my brain; the original was stuffed with cream cheese, but I thought surely we could get a little bit more exciting?  I tested brie-stuffed and mascarpone-stuffed versions on a crowd a few weekends ago, and the brie was the clear favorite, though there was a minority of guests who are not stinky-cheese fans and therefore found the mascarpone more palatable.  You should know, though, that all of the little apricots disappeared in a flash; I had to pry them away so they could be photographed!

I think these would be lovely as part of an hors d’oeuvres spread, or with a cheese course or dessert assortment or just simply paired with a bottle of crisp white to start a meal.  Probably you fine people out there have further ideas for cheeses that would work, so feel free to leave suggestions along with your Word Tree Words—ooh!  We could have a whole “cheese” section of the tree!  Havarti and Jarlsberg and Chevre all hanging together in perfect harmony.

See how my brain is wired for miscellany these days?  I’m off to teach some renegade eighth graders, and in the meantime I leave you with a very elegant but simple-to-assemble canapé which I hope will serve you well.

BRIE-STUFFED APRICOTS

jumbo dried apricots (test these for springy-ness before buying; overly dry fruit will not stuff well)

small wedge Brie cheese, softened at room temp apricots up close

good-quality honey

toasted almonds, thinly sliced

Using a small, sharp paring knife, slit the apricot around its curve, working the knife into the meat of the fruit to form a pocket.  Be careful not to cut all the way around, just about a half-moon shape is enough.  Repeat with desired number of apricots—I think I did twenty-four.

Use a small spoon (my grapefruit spoon worked well) to stuff about a ½ tsp of Brie into each apricot.  Don’t worry if a little bit is showing, I think it’s nice to give diners an idea of what they’re eating and the two colors look lovely in contrast.

Drizzle the platter of apricots with a gentle rain of honey, either squeezing from the bottle or warming a bit in the microwave and then zig-zagging a spoonful over the fruit.

Dot the top of each apricot with an almond slice.  And I’ve gotta quote Julia here, ubiquitous as she may be it’s for a reason, Bon Appétit!

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CHEWY AMARETTI COOKIES

Sometimes, a little fuss is in order.

amaretti cookies

Though our general philosophy here at Blue Jean Gourmet is that food does not need to be fussy to be delicious, there are occasions (and recipes and people) for which a little fuss is not such a bad thing.  If you are making the fuss for a reason, it ceases to be fuss and starts to be care or love or desire or enthusiasm.  And those are all good things.

Last week, Jill met my extended family for the first time.  They’re not technically my family, as we’re not related by blood, but the aunties and uncles I grew up with in Memphis are mine, and I am theirs.  They’re all brave immigrants, like my parents, who came to this country from India and somehow figured out how to raise children (sassy, first-generation children) in a completely foreign land.

As you can imagine, the whole l-e-s-b-i-a-n thing has been sort of a hard road for all of us; hard enough, and then really just not on the radar in the Indian community at all.  But since my father died three years ago, things have shifted.  I’m older; Jill and I have been together longer.  My mother, in her generosity and determination to build a great adult relationship with me, has met me more than halfway.  And my community has followed.

We had what my friends and I jokingly called a “sip and see,” usually thrown in the South when a baby is born and everyone comes to inspect him/her and drink punch.  Instead of a baby, we had (a very nervous) Jill.  And instead of punch, we had sparkling shiraz, fruit sodas, cheese & crackers, spinach dip, fruit, homemade chocolate-covered strawberries, and these cookies.

These amaretti, unlike the also delicious but crunchy kind you may be used to, are light, airy, and almost evaporate in your mouth when served plain.  An equally good but richer option is to “glue” them together with some jam or melted chocolate.

In case you were wondering, Jill was charming and gracious, as she always is.  I think my aunties and uncles saw at least a sliver of what I see in her, and they were gracious and lovingly inquisitive back.  When I closed the door after our last guest, I found myself moved to tears because two parts of my life had finally come together, parts I long thought would always be separate.  Certainly an occasion worth making a little fuss over.

CHEWY AMARETTI COOKIES
adapted from Gourmet magazine, January 2009

ingredients:

7 oz. almond paste (not marzipan)
1 cup sugar
2 large egg whites, at room temperature for 30 minutes
¼ cup almonds, toasted

oven: 300°
pan: baking sheet
special equipment: food processor, parchment paper & a pastry bag (or just use a large Ziploc bag instead, like me)

Line the baking sheets with parchment paper; please don’t try to substitute anything else as it won’t work and you’ll regret it, I promise.

Pulse the almond paste with the sugar in your food processor until it has broken up & looks crumbly; add almonds & egg whites and process until the mixture is smooth.

Pile the mixture into your pastry bag or Ziploc bag; if the latter, cut off one corner of the bag and squeeze rounds onto the parchment.  Cookies work best if they are less than an inch round; place them just as far apart on the sheets.

amaretti on parchment

Bake until the cookies are golden & puffed, about 15 minutes.  Cool on a rack, then peel off of the parchment.

optional: Sandwich the cookies together, two at a time, using any number of fillings; melted chocolate, raspberry or strawberry jam, Nutella, etc.

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A BIRTHDAY & A WELCOME

Hello fine people!  I do so hope you are doing well and keeping cool out there as July winds itself up into August (to ask the proverbial rhetorical: when did that happen?)

I have two VERY EXCITING pieces of news for you today!  First, my Blue Jean Spouse & sweet love, Jill, is celebrating her birthday tomorrow.  Can I just say, I’m so achingly grateful that she came into the world and I’m tremendously proud to share my life with her.  Happy birthday, honey!

gala

Second, and there’s even a fun tie-in here, I am so pleased to announce that we have a new addition here at Blue Jean Gourmet!  My best friend’s brother, Anders, has agreed to be our guest sommelier, sharing his wine expertise with us monthly (read his full bio here).  He’ll post on special topics and tie-in with what we’re cooking around here, but he’s also happy to answer any wine questions you may have.  So please comment away!

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love wine of all kinds, the world of wine can be a little intimidating and needlessly snobby.  Anders, while he has the credentials and knowledge, is a totally approachable, down-to-earth guy and I think he will fit right in around here.  He’s even created his own clever Wine Rating Scale so you don’t have to fuss with boring points.  Not to mention, he’s totally handsome, right?  Anders

(I’m allowed to say that; I’m his sister’s best friend.)

So, enough from me already—I’ll turn you over to him.  Have a lovely weekend, everyone, and I’ll see you on Tuesday, when our regular, recipe-posts will resume.


Greetings to all of Blue Jean Gourmet’s faithful and happy birthday Jill!

Normally I would talk about how to take wine drinking (and tasting) to the next level in my first post.  But seeing that it is Jill’s birthday and given Jill’s proclivity for sparkling wine, Nishta asked me to touch on the subject.  So here goes…

Sparkling wine is a very special type of juice.  Originally it was actually the bane of winemakers in cooler climates.  For centuries, winemakers trying to make dry wines were puzzled by bottles that kept developing bubbles and often exploded in their cellars.  What they didn’t realize was that when they laid their wines down to spontaneously ferment over the winter, the cold temperatures of Northern France and England were halting the process and leaving excess sugar behind.  The winemakers would then bottle the wine which would later restart fermentation in the spring, creating CO2 and carbonating the wine.

Eventually some of our wine-consuming predecessors developed a taste for this frothy wine and savvy producers figured out ways to make stronger glass, better ferment the wine, and even remove the dead yeast cells from the bottles after an intentional second fermentation was completed.  As a result, today we enjoy crystal clear sparklers that seem to embody the spirit of celebration and whose combination of effervescence and high acid make them formidable pairing wines.

For Jill’s birthday, I want to focus on a sparkler that I find especially compelling because simply- it is darn good for the amount of money you have to shell out.  The bodacious bubbly in question is Cava; a Spanish wine that can be made in any of six different wine-making regions but typically comes from the Penedes region in Catalonia (about 50 kilometers from Barcelona).

The secret to Cava’s success is that it is required by law to be produced in what is known as the Traditional Method (just like Champagne).  This means every bottle has to go through its second fermentation in the bottle you buy it in rather than in a different bottle or in a massive tank.

This process has important implications on the size, longevity and abundance of bubbles as well as the potential for yeasty notes in the final product.  It’s these yeasty notes and fine bubbles that define high-end Champagne and can be found in Cava for sometimes as little as one-tenth of the price.  If you are wondering what exactly “yeasty notes” encompasses- they are flavors and aromas of bread, biscuits, brioche, etc. combined with a slightly creamy mouthfeel.

Some pairing ideas for dry white Cava: grilled shrimp with lemon juice and garlic, sushi or sashimi, fried oysters, crackers with Gouda.  Or, if you are an East-Coaster like me, try it with lobster and butter.  Cheers!

1+1=3 Brut NV                                              ~$15.99 Retail 1+1=3BrutNVCava

My first impression of the 1+1=3 is that when I sat down taste it 10 minutes after it had been opened and five minutes after it had been poured, is that it had already stopped bubbling, lame.  After putting to my nose my mood shifted as it displayed nicely subtle aromas of almond paste and clover.  It had a strong lemon flavor and a healthy acidity. Overall I wasn’t blown away and I was never the best student of arithmetic but I’m pretty sure 1+1=2.

Anders’ Rating: What Else is on the Shelf?


parxetcuvee21Cava

Parxet Cuvee 21 NV                                     ~$10.99 Retail

The Parxet was also not bubbling when I sat down, but showed some yeasty characters upon inspection with my nose.  Aromas of toasted brioche melded well with a very lemony palate.  To my surprise it became quite pleasantly frothy in my mouth, despite being previously devoid of bubbles.  It showed a racy acidity and a nuance of raw almond that lingered on the finish.

Anders’ Rating: Class for the Coin


Gramona Gran Cuvee 2004                         ~$19.99 Retail  GramonaGranCuvee2004

Hooray! Bubbles from the beginning! Awesome aromatic intensity- what was that?  Browned biscuit, amaretto cookies and pineapple on the nose? Yummy. The palate didn’t disappoint with a nice weight, creamy mouthfeel and flavors of pineapple and mandarin.  A good length too!  If you can spare the 20 greenbacks I would certainly give it a try. It kept me guessing as new flavors kept emerging.

Anders’ Rating: Top Notch


aria-pinot-noir-bottleSegura Viudas Aria Pinot Noir Brut NV    ~$12.99 Retail

The Segura was by far the champ when it came to bubble longevity, the CO2 just wouldn’t relent.  A strikingly floral and fruity nose of rose petals, red raspberry and tangerine.  I was surprised to get conspicuous blueberry on the palate, complemented by a generous honey note.  Seemed much sweeter than I actually think it was, probably could have used a little more acidity.  However, really fun and complex, my only caveat is that if you don’t like fruity and floral this probably won’t be your thing. It was absolutely stellar with smoked salmon and I am drying to try it with Tuna Maguro.

Anders’ Rating: Class for the Coin

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: GINGERSNAP-MASCARPONE TART

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there sure is a lot of pretty fruit out there—berries of all sorts, stone fruits like plums, nectarines, cherries, & peaches,  tropical goodies a la pineapples & mangoes—it’s actually rather (or rawther, as Eloise would say) hard to go wrong in the produce section this time of year.

So in the interest of cutting to the chase, allow me to present you with one of my favorite vehicles for enjoying summer fruit: the (virtually) bakeless tart.

peach tart with mascarpone filling

Ain’t it purty?  Tastes good, too.  What you see there is a crust made of crushed-up, storebought gingersnaps (and a little buttah, naturally), a filling comprised of mascarpone cheese, whipping cream, sugar, & vanilla, and a topping of virtually any fruit you like.

Super-versatile, straightforward, crowd-pleaser.  Oh, and you can make the crust & filling ahead, too.  People, get excited!

What works so well here, I think, is that the mascarpone brings a slightly unexpected flavor—much more subtle than American cream cheese, mascarpone is its Italian cousin which can be readily be found near the mozzarella & feta in even mainstream grocery stores’ deli cases.   By thickening and sweetening the cheese just a little, this filling becomes an excellent foil for the fruit, showing it off and offering it a creamy complement.

And the gingersnap crust?  Well, that just speaks for itself, right?

gingersnap crust

There are myriad variations on the theme here—instead of flavoring the mascarpone with vanilla, try an orange liquor or Kahlua or Amaretto.  If you just can’t abide gingersnaps, swap in another crunchy cookie, chocolate or vanilla.

Though sweet Texas peaches (oh, sweet Texas peaches) are pictured here, I recently made this tart topped with a mound of sliced strawberries which had been gently bathed in a little balsamic vinegar.  A lovely ending to a sweet summer’s dinner.

GINGERSNAP-MASCARPONE TART
serves 8-12

What’s pictured above is a double-recipe of filling, which actually yielded more than I needed to fill the tart.  So I cut it in half the second time around and found a more moderate amount of filling to be more to my liking.  Of course, feel free to do what you think you’ll like best!

pan: 9-inch tart pan w/ a removable bottom is ideal, but a 9-inch pie pan will work just fine

oven: 350°

crust:    1 (8 oz.) box crunchy gingersnaps (yielding 2 ½ cups of crumbs) gingersnaps

4 T unsalted butter, softened

Use a food processor, if you have it, to blitz the gingersnaps to smithereens, then add the butter and process until well combined.

To make the crust by hand, simply transfer the snaps to a Ziploc bag & break them up with a rolling pin or mallet.  (An excellent way to let out one’s frustrations!)   Mix in the softened butter by hand.

Once you have buttery crumbs, press them into the pan, being sure to work up the sides at least halfway.  Bake for just 5 minutes, to solidify the crust.  Cool.

filling:    1 (8 oz.) tub mascarpone cheese

½ cup powdered sugarwhipped mascarpone

½ cup heavy whipping cream

½ tsp. vanilla or other flavoring

Using a stand mixer, whip the cheese on medium until smooth.  Add powdered sugar, then the heavy cream.

It will take a few minutes for the cream to thicken the mixture—increase the speed as you go, until the consistency is similar to whipped frosting.

Mix in the vanilla or other flavoring, then spoon over the gingersnap crust, smoothing the surface.

At this point, you can cover the whole thing and store it in the fridge.  Just before serving, top with the fruit of your choice & enjoy!

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: SANGRIA

sangria solo I can’t vouch for the “authenticity” of my sangria recipe—it seems to me that at this point there are a million different ways to make the stuff—but I can promise you that it’s delicious.  This is not that sickeningly sweet, pre-fab stuff they often serve in restaurants.  It’s refreshing, impressive, and easy to make.  Even my beer-drinking guy friends like this version!

Consider the following more of a guideline than an actual recipe.  Feel free to mess with the types of fruit you use, based on whatever you have handy.  I’ve never tried a white-wine version, but I think a substitution would be easy to do.  The real winning point of this recipe, I think, is that the wine is sweetened naturally, with fruit juice, and isn’t messed with too much.  You also don’t have to use a very expensive bottle of wine here—just something drinkable, definitely under $10.

Like any good summer recipe, this one actually tastes better if you make it ahead of time. Sangria looks beautiful in a pitcher for a party, but will also keep in the fridge for a few days—not too long, though, or the fruit will go soft.  Really, you shouldn’t have that problem because this stuff is a little bit addictive anyway.  Enjoy!

SUMMER SANGRIA

1 bottle dry red wine (cabernet sauvignon or merlot) wine bottle necks

½ pineapple*

2-3 oranges (blood oranges are particularly nice if you can find them)

2 limes

1 lemon

various sliced fruit: peaches, apples, strawberries

one of the following: a citrus liquor (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Triple Sec), Peach schnapps or peach nectar

Pour wine into a pitcher.  Cube pineapple (if using whole) and add to wine.  Squeeze juice from pineapple rind (or pour from container) into wine mixture.  Squeeze the juices from 1 orange, limes, and lemons into the wine mix.
Make segments from remaining oranges and add, along with other sliced fruit, to the sangria.  Stir in a generous glug of liquor or fruit nectar.
Refrigerate until serving.  Be sure to portion a generous heap of wine-soaked fruit into each glass!  Enjoy.

sangria with pitcher 3
* If cutting a pineapple sounds like too much work, look in the refrigerated case of the produce section of your supermarket for pre-cubed pineapple.  Of course, buying a pineapple whole & cubing it yourself is much thriftier, but whatever you do, please don’t use canned!  Bleck!

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NO-FAIL POPOVERS

I’m feeling nostalgic for Memphis.  Always happens at about the three-and-a-half-month mark.  After that much distance, I start craving all the regulars:  pulled pork sandwiches, dry-rubbed ribs (which I attempted to make myself last week, with surprising success, whee!), fried catfish, everything my mother makes, and popovers with strawberry butter.

popovers

Hmm.  These not exactly what you think of when you think of Memphis?  Let me explain.

Growing up, there was a “default” fancy restaurant, reserved for birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations: Paulette‘s in Midtown, an oak-paneled kind of place with a live pianist and French-inspired menu of crêpes, steaks, and other old-school fare.  Just the kind of place to make young girls feel very grown-up and sophisticated; an excuse to wear your party dress.

I haven’t been to Paulette’s in many years, and really the only reason they occupy an important place in my arsenal of culinary memories is because of their popovers.  Instead of a basket of bread, Paulette’s would (and I hope they still do) offer up baskets of hot popovers with strawberry butter.

Oh yes oh yes oh yes.

Have you ever had a popover?  Or is it just a Memphis thing?

popovers 2
Conventional wisdom on popovers has long argued that they are fussy and high-maintenace, but that’s never been the case for me.  In a stroke of what I can only classify as foresight genius, I clipped the Paulette’s recipe for popovers out of the local Memphis paper while I was in high school.  I didn’t even cook then!  In fact, it was probably about four or five years until I even tried the recipe–by then, I was far from home and nostalgic for its tastes.

This recipe has never failed me.  You do have to follow the specifics (pre-heating the pan, using room temperature eggs), but it’s not necessary to use a popover pan the way some people think (a muffin tin works just fine, thankyouverymuch) and the finished product is supremely satisfying.

What does a popover taste like, you might ask?  Like a very eggy-but-not-chewy pastry, crusty on the outside and airy on the inside.  Serve them with strawberry butter, like they do in Memphis.

In just about a week, Jill and I will be driving up to my hometown for a visit.  When we cross the bridge from Arkansas to Tennessee over the big, muddy, ugly Mississippi where my father’s ashes were spread, I will cry.  I’ll weave through the streets of Memphis, which I can navigate like I can’t anywhere else.  Jill and I will eat our way through the city, and through my mother’s two (count them, two!) refrigerators, which she will have stocked for our arrival.

That’s how I’ll know I’m home.

Coming up Tuesday is the next installment of our Summer Classics Series: key lime pie.  Ohhhhhh yeah.  Until then, try these popovers for a lovely weekend brunch.

NO-FAIL POPOVERS546958620_dsc_0032
Paulette’s Restaurant, as printed in The Commercial Appeal many years ago

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 Tbsp oil
3 large eggs, AT ROOM TEMP
¾ tsp. salt
1 cup milk

pan: muffin tin, well-greased

oven: 415° F.

Place muffin tin in hot oven.  Sift together flour & salt.  In a separate bowl, whisk milk and oil together.  Slowly mix milk-oil into dry ingredients with a spoon until creamy smooth.

Add eggs one at a time; this will take some patience!  What you want to achieve are ribbons of egg in the batter.  After all the eggs have been incorporated, stir mixture for 2 additional minutes.  Remove warm muffin tin from the oven, filling each cup ½ full.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the popovers while still hot or they will stick to the pan!  Perfect served with strawberry butter.*

buttered popover 2
*Strawberry Butter

Mix together equal parts softened butter & strawberry preserves.  It really is that easy!  Of course, with strawberries being so lovely right now you could do something more homegrown: wash & chop strawberries, pat dry.  Place them in a bowl & sprinkle sugar over them, letting the mixture sit for an hour to release the juice.  Blend the strawberries with an equal amount of softened butter.

Either version of strawberry butter will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer indefinitely.  Just make sure you soften it again before you want to use it

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