Monday, May 31, 2010

Road Tripping

Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, I think we all can agree that summer has indisputably started.  Sundresses, warm evenings, weekends lazing about in the sultry heat...and hot subway platforms and impertinent mosquitoes which have the nerve to fly 15 stories up (and into my apartment) that we will eventually need a vacation from.

So not only has summer started, but vacation planning has also begun in earnest.  Certain tools must be dusted off and employed. for airline fares, Tablet Hotel for the distinctly un-Marriot/Westin/Hyatt type accommodations, and my new favorite, via Michelin for planning road trips.

Type in a departure location and a destination, and dear old Michelin will tell you how far you'll be driving, how long you'll be driving, how much in tolls you'll be paying, how much in gas you'll be paying and where those pesky speed cameras are located.  You couldn't get such detailed information from even the most informed of locals.

So for a few unscheduled days I have in Europe this summer, I've been trying out a few virtual itineraries.  Do I drive from Paris to the Atlantic coast of France or take the train?

From the looks of it the 2 hour TGV beats the 4 hour drive and the 30 euro tolls.

Is a leisurely drive from Marseille to Nice realistic in 4 days?

The answer appears to be yes, but the summertime crowds are another story.  Epic, I'm told.

Lisbon to Madrid?  Doable, but why leave Portugal for a six hour drive?

Wherever I go (suggestions are welcome) there are bound to be a few surprises, but hopefully, with the help of Monsieur Michelin, none of them will be transport related...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Just the Smoothest...

I'm not really one for cleanses. I like the idea of them, but I simply can't sustain such limited food intake for more than a day or two (the leek weekend is about as long as I can hold out for). Life just starts to feel entirely joyless when too many things are off limits.

But my inability to complete a cleanse doesn't mean that I don't read about them (I'm not sure if doing so makes me feel virtuous or if I'm really just hoping to learn some fascinating bit of advice). I've read Spent by Dr. Frank Lippman and Gwennie's favorite Clean by Alejandro Junger. The advice from these two gurus seems fairly similar...cut out half your diet (gluten, dairy, meat, etc.), meditate and drink smoothies.

Now I'll admit that I have never once even contemplated cutting gluten or dairy from my diet. I generally feel pretty good so don't see the need. And the last time I cut meat out of my diet I was twelve and experimenting with being a hippie vegetarian. It was a short lived experiment.

I'm not exactly a meditator either, although I absolutely adore my yoga classes at Strala ($10 per class! and the owner is the coolest!). There is perhaps a bit of meditation that they sneak in but not so much that would offend a non-meditator.

But the smoothies? The smoothies I can get behind. As devoted as I am to my morning poached eggs, after an indulgent evening it can feel a bit much. And as the weather warms, just about the last thing I'm in the mood for is a hot breakfast.

But that said I do need some serious food in the morning, otherwise my stomach starts gnawing on itself around 10:30 a.m. I wasn't sure that pureed fruit would do the trick, so you can imagine my surprise when I first tried a breakfast smoothie and found my hunger was kept largely at bay until lunch time.

Now there are plenty of recipes in both of these books which are quite delicious (I will leave it to you to try them), but frankly first thing in the morning I'm more in the mood to throw things in the blender haphazardly than to do any precise measurements.

So I go for an approximation of the formula that Dr. Lippman seems to rely on. A cup or so of frozen fruit (Trader Joe's has amazingly cheap frozen blueberries, strawberries, pineapple, etc.), a cup of either coconut water or almond milk (I find I get a smoother result with coconut water), a squirt of agave syrup, a few ice cubes and then either a couple of spoonfuls of nut butter or a quarter of an avocado (it is this component that keeps me sated all morning so do not omit!). If you have the dregs of some coconut milk sitting around a splash of that is nice as well for some creaminess. But unless you're trying to turn this into a calorie intensive Ensure-like drink, just a splash.

I've been loving my blueberry and avocado smoothie, mango/pineapple with a bit of cinnamon (the coconut milk splash is great here) and strawberry/banana/blueberry. What combinations are you terribly imaginative folk dying to try?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Room to Breathe

With the prospect of lots of out of town summer weekends ahead of me, I've been savoring the last few that I have at home for the foreseeable future.  Saturdays are generally spent puttering about...farmer's market in the morning, yoga and then various necessary tasks.  Later Paul and I meet up after he is done with whatever epic bike ride he's undertaken that day and we either have a quiet night in or a night out on the town.

But Sunday, glorious Sunday!  I sleep as late as I like, I make a decadent breakfast, I tussle over the TV with Paul for a bit (my political talk shows versus his downloaded British dramas) and then the afternoon is wide open.  For whatever.

Now of course more often than not things don't quite go according to plan.  There are errands to be run, people to be seen, chores to be done.  But everyone once in a while, things are perfectly free and easy.

I have just enough odds and ends in the refrigerator to make a beautiful, balanced breakfast.

[The one merguez sausage left over from dinner the night before was just as luscious and fat-studded as I had hoped it would be.  The bit of dill I had kicking around in the vegetable drawer added the perfect je ne sais quoi  to my eggs, and the slightly wilted red mustard greens (currently my favorite variety of greens) provided the crunch and vitamins.]

I have the freedom to thumb through inspiring cookbooks, both new and old.

And the time to cook from them.

[Jim Lahey's carrot bread, nascent stage]

These are the times to be savored.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Lull

After the initial euphoria that comes with the dawning of spring, there comes a lull.  The novelty of asparagus and peonies has worn off, and as welcome a sight as the arugula, chard and mustard greens are, they cannot stand up to the sexiness of the coming summer fruits and vegetables.  So it is at this time of year that I always turn to rhubarb for a little pick-me-up.

Is it a fruit, is it a vegetable?  Who knows, who really cares in the end.  It's the oddity of it that I like, the bracing tartness disguised as a rosy celery.

In past years I've always stuck to roasting or slow cooking it to make a compote, to be eaten with yogurt for breakfast or for a particularly austere dessert.  And this year I did allocate a bit of my stash to that use, as I find it comforting to have a jar of this astringent mush in the refrigerator.  A bit of white wine (perfect way to use up that last bit of a bottle that's been in the fridge a smidge too long), sugar and orange zest mixed together and then a half hour in a 350 degree oven and I had some gorgeous, restorative spoon food.

But I had gone a bit overboard at the farmer's market and had armloads of rhubarb stalks in my refrigerator.  With the sparkling, warm weather of late I've had summery cocktails on the brain, so it seemed only appropriate to make a bit of rhubarb syrup that might be added to prosecco, gin rickeys or whatever else strikes your fancy.  Perhaps a rhubarb Italian soda would be nice for those non-imbibers?

I simmered pieces of rhubarb with enough water to nearly cover the stalks, some orange rind and a sprinkling of sugar until all of the pink had been leached from the rhubarb.  Once the mixture had been strained I added a bit more sweetness via my favorite new discovery, agave syrup (I know I'm late to the party on this one but I do love it just the same) and decanted into a cute little bottle I picked up at the Container Store.  I think this may be my obsession for the summer...fruity syrups.  Hibiscus syrup is next on my list.

And lastly, more to use up some tart dough I had in the refrigerator from this recipe over at 101 Cookbooks than anything else, I made a rhubarb and ricotta crostata.  And just because I was feeling my domestic goddess bones at the time, I made the ricotta.  The undertaking was not particularly hard (I have to say the lemon juice method you may find online did not work at all for me, but the buttermilk method was a breeze), and is most certainly worth the effort if you don't have access to outstanding ricotta, but frankly Di Palo's ricotta was better than mine.  But at least my curiosity about the matter has now been satisfied.      

So after a bit of rolling, stirring, chopping and baking, I was left with this, to be enjoyed morning noon and night, whenever the mood might strike.

Perhaps onto Jamie Oliver's rhubarb-stuffed duck next?

Rhubarb Crostata

1 batch of tart dough (I often use Martha Stewart's incomparable pate brisee recipe, but I love the whole grains in this recipe as well)

Ricotta Filling

7 oz fresh ricotta, drained in a colander lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth unless your ricotta is already quite dry
2 teaspoons sugar
zest of 1/2 of an orange

Rhubarb Filling

9 oz rhubarb (1 1/2 stalks, about 2 cups), sliced into 1/4 inch slices
3 tablespoons sugar
zest of 1/2 of an orange
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Stir together the rhubarb filling ingredients and leave to macerate.  Stir together the ricotta filling ingredients, making sure to smooth the ricotta as you do so.

Roll dough into a circle of about 1/4 inch in thickness, and transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.  

Spread the ricotta in a circle in the center of the dough, leaving an approximately 2-inch border on all edges.  Then pile the rhubarb on top of the ricotta, including any juice that may have accumulated.  Fold edges of the dough over the side, partially covering the fruit.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes, until the fruit is bubbling and tender.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Perfectly Clean

There are a fair number of things that I'm laid back about.  The cleanliness of my bathtub for instance, dessert portion control and the frequency of my pedicures.  And then there are certain things that I am nearly obsessive about, like an orderly desk at work and chasing down extraneous fees or incorrect billing amounts (I'm looking at you, big bad cable company who wouldn't fix your own mistake until 311 intervened!).  I cycle through obsessions, I suppose enjoying the intensity and focus that each one brings.      

My latest obsession is the toxicity of personal care products.  It's actually long been a concern of mine...I've been seeking out products free of parabens and phthalates for quite some time now, having heard of their scary hormone interfering and cancer-causing effects.  However, I'll admit that even the paraben and phthalate free products have ingredient lists that I find disconcerting.  It seemed that in the midst of all of those chemical names there had to be something else concerning.  But I'm no scientist, and I can't go around memorizing the names of all harmful components.  

Thankfully, I have found someone else to do my obsessing for me.  The Environmental Working Group maintains a fabulous website called Skin Deep to inform us about the contents of our bathroom cabinets.  Type in virtually any skin care, hair care or makeup product and it will tell you just how terrible it is, on a scale from 1 (low risk) to 10 (offensive that the product is legal).  And if you can't find your product (unlikely, but it happens occasionally) you can just type in the ingredients for individual ingredient ratings.

I was relieved to find that my beloved Bare Escentuals powder scored an admirable 1 on the scale.

Lovely to see that a company that touts its purity actually lives up to the hype.

I actually found that quite a few product lines that have built their brand on an image of environmental sensitivity (and which charge handsomely for "responsible" products) are in fact quite a bit higher on the scale than I would have assumed.  I am still rather incensed by the discovery.

I was disappointed in my supposedly green shampoo and conditioner, especially given that in addition to rating 6s and 7s, the conditioner doesn't make my hair particularly soft.  In fact, when I look in the mirror I am often reminded of the Family Ties episode where Jennifer made Mallory stop using conditioner out of concern for the environment and her hair as a result began to resemble that of Sideshow Bob.  Anyone know of any good conditioners that won't wreak havoc on my health?

Although my eye shadows are apparently killing me slowly (what on earth do they put in these things?) I was heartened to know that my mascara, which I was convinced would be off the charts, wasn't so terrible after all.  I was also thrilled (although not entirely surprised) to see that my favorite chamomile  eye cream from Evan Healy scored very well.

This entire line scored consistently low on the toxicity scale, which was thrilling given the high quality (and lovely scents) of the products.  Easily my best product discovery of the past year.

Aubrey Organics is another line that seemed to live up to its own green hype (I switched Paul from his butane-containing deodorant spray to Aubrey's pine scented version), as is California Baby.

But the one I'm most excited to try?  Be Natural Organics Deep Cleansing Oil Treatment.  Scoring a cool 1 on the scale, perhaps this is the next coming of the great Shu Uemura cleansing oil?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Rich Nut

I come from a family that cooks together, so I like to have company in the kitchen.  Sadly, in my tiny kitchen (and in the kitchens of most of my friends) company causes more stress than pleasure.  But it was not always so.  While in graduate school I, along with many of my friends, lived in the land of big kitchens and affordable apartments.  So communal cooking did actually occur, and quite harmoniously.  

One time in particular I recall three friends and I pooled our efforts and prepared a feast for many.  It was a banner day because it was the first time I realized that those that I had previously assumed were unfamiliar with the kitchen were in fact excellent cooks.  Vivian provided the decadent restaurant-worthy dessert, and Laia introduced me to a main dish from her native Spain that I had never had the pleasure of tasting before...her great aunt's pork in tomato and almond sauce.

I was thinking back on the meal fondly the other fondly in fact that I set out to recreate the dish.  I could not simply ask for the recipe, as during the night in question she had been working off of a few scribbled notes that she had taken from a phone conversation with her mother.  Quantities were not included in said notes.  It was all trial and error and the results were wonderful.

So I set about searing, sauteing, simmering and blending,

enjoying the process of tasting my way through a dish.  Tasting in such detail was a revelation as it highlighted what a wonderful addition the almonds are to the sauce (a stark before and after).  They provided a heft and richness, yet the sauce remained light, I suppose due to the lack of dairy products.  Gotta love that Mediterranean diet.     

It occurred to me that the Italians use walnuts in much the same way that the Spanish apparently use almonds...or in some cases they use them as the main feature in the sauce, rather than as a supporting player (demonstrated very deliciously here).  My head is fairly spinning with all of the other nut possibilities...cashews with some sort of indian sauce, peanuts with some spice...far too many good options!

Pork Chops in Almond Sauce (which may or may not resemble that of Laia's great aunt)
Serves 4

4 pork chops, bone in (Laia used thin boneless slices of loin, I leave the choice up to you)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1-2 bay leaves
3-4 sprigs of thyme, leaves striped of stem
1/2 cup white wine
28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 cup raw almonds (or to taste)
salt to taste

Heat olive oil in a dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pan.  Salt chops generously and brown on each side until golden.  Remove chops to a plate.  Saute carrot, celery and onion in remaining fat until onion is translucent.  Add bay leaves and thyme and saute for a minute or two.  Deglaze the pan with wine, and add tomatoes, breaking up with a spoon.  Bring to boil and reduce to simmer.  Simmer for 10 minutes, and add chops back to sauce, simmering at low heat for another 20 minutes.  

With a large spoon, remove as much of the sauce as you comfortably can to a food processor or blender. Blend almonds with the sauce, adding a bit at a time and tasting, so that you add only enough to satisfy your own palate.  Return sauce to the pan with the pork chops, simmer for a minute or two and serve.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Home Turf

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the Bay Area, in Oakland to be precise. I tell everyone I meet that it was a great place to grow up, and indeed it was. My parents' home is pure northern California, a modestly sized craftsman bungalow on an obscenely gorgeous piece of land. There is a creek running through the front yard, fruit trees and flowers in the back, and massive redwoods and oak trees encircling the whole thing.

Luckily, this little country retreat is only twenty minutes (on a good traffic day) from San Francisco and ten minutes from Berkeley. I had the urban environment at my fingertips but lived in an oasis removed from it. Having lived a few places now, I can with a certain amount of confidence say that this combination of country and city is entirely unique (or at least largely unique) to the Oakland/Berkeley area.

So you can imagine my surprise at the reactions I got when I first left home upon revealing where I was from. You're from Oakland?!! Are you sure?  You must mean Piedmont (a wealthy municipality which oddly is entirely surrounded by Oakland)? As I tell people, all cities have good and bad areas. Oakland is no different. It happens that I grew up in one of the nicer areas. They do exist, I promise. Defending Oakland is my cross to bear it seems.

So I'll admit that, after reading the first few pages of Farm City, a book that one of my parents' dearest friends recommended that I read, I was not all that enthralled. The book, by Novella Carpenter, is a story of the author's experience moving to Oakland (not to one of the nicer areas by the sound of things) and starting an urban farm on an abandoned lot adjacent to her home. The early pages describe Oakland as a forlorn, desolate place, riddled with gunshots and crack addicts. A forgotten city, plagued with unshakable urban blight.

Mildly incensed, I called my mother to complain. She reminded me that in truth, there are some areas of the city you don't want to go to after dusk, or in some cases, at midday. And one or two city officials have attracted more interest from the FBI than they'd probably like. OK fair point. I continued on with the book.

I followed Ms. Carpenter's adventures in gardening, in poultry rearing, in rabbit husbandry, in bee keeping and in raising pigs (and continue to at her blog), and was utterly amazed by how much this woman could do on her back porch (bees and rabbits) and on a 4,000 square foot empty lot (everything else). With a willingness to haul manure from a horse farm in the hills, to behead ducks, to skin rabbits and a propensity for dumpster diving in search of fresh food for the chickens and pigs, she reminded me of the early pioneers to the western united states, updated.  She was willing to try virtually anything to make a go of it in an inhospitable land, and she willingly shared her bounty with others, some of whom asked for it and some of whom simply took.

Through her farm she forged friendships with the man living in the beat up car down the street, the immigrant families in the neighborhood and even came across another urban farmer in the area named Willow.  In fact, at a party at the Player's Club the other night I was chatting with our hostess about the book and as I described the premise she said, oh is it written by Willow?  Apparently these pioneering Oakland women are gaining trans-continental reputations!

I was surprised at how moved I was by Ms. Carpenter's story.  She had an unusually deep connection to her farm, and I enjoyed reading about her efforts, which had a faintly subversive ring to them, to make it run.  Thankfully her story wasn't simply another an exhortation for people to grow a few vegetables and stop eating corn syrup.  It was far deeper than that.  It was an example of a woman re-engaging in a serious way with the ecosystem, not just the one in her back yard that supported plants and animals but the one in her neighborhood that connected people, who in turn needed to be reconnected to plants and animals.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In the Raw

I spent many years feeling ambivalent towards asparagus.  It may have had something to do with the fact that I grew up in California and therefore had little sense of the seasons.  Near perfect weather year round (and access to great produce year round) makes the idea of a spring awakening seem absurd.

But now that I've been on the east coast long enough to have internalized the rhythms of a more extreme weather zone, spring and I have become very close friends indeed.  And as asparagus is one of the first harbingers of spring (and is considerably more delicious than ramps, another of the main indicators of spring), it has become one of my favorite vegetables.

In an effort to take full advantage of the asparagus season I have gotten in the habit of picking up a bunch of two at the Greenmarket each week, which means I have quite a few spears to contend with at any given time.  I've steamed them, poached them, blanched them, roasted them and thrown them in no end of pasta and risotto dishes.

But one evening as I was preparing the asparagus for dinner, washing the bunch and snapping off the tough ends, I noticed myself employing a "one for me, one for the pot" philosophy.  Crunching away on the raw asparagus I wondered why on earth I'd been bothering to cook it...asparagus is so delicious raw!  Assuming, I guess, that you have good farm fresh asparagus that is.

So I decided to take advantage of my access to such enviable asparagus and make a salad featuring the stuff.  Arugula (adult please, I can't take any more baby greens), a lemon vinaigrette and loads of parmesan cheese are, as it turns out, gorgeous accompaniments to my favorite vegetable of the season.

Arugula and Asparagus Salad

(I always make this in the bowl that I plan to serve the salad in to save washing up)

Juice of half of a lemon
Good pinch of salt
Olive oil to taste (I like it quite tart, but find the dressing is right once it becomes translucent assuming you are whisking consistently as the oil is added)

half a bunch of asparagus, tough ends snipped off, sliced in half inch intervals
a few handfuls of arugula, roughly chopped
a handful of grated parmesan

Whisk together vinaigrette in a good sized salad bowl.  Toss in asparagus and arugula, toss in vinaigrette.  Throw in parmesan and toss thoroughly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Time Has Come

To my great delight, peonies made their annual debut at the Greenmarket this past weekend.  

(first of season peonies at James Durr)

And I was not the only one excited by the event.

(epic line at James Durr)

I brought the tight little buds home, cradling them tenderly during the trip, and carefully arranged them in my most minimalist vase.  Although they reminded me a bit of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, I could not help but be thrilled for the burst of color I knew would be forthcoming. 

Bit by bit,

blossoms sprang forth.  Massive in diameter, the papery and delicate peonies made me smile each time I walked by.

Here's to a spring and summer home filled with these gorgeous blooms!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Around the World In an Hour

I'll admit that, as much as I love wandering around the streets of New York, I find that shopping in this city can be a draining experience.  In the same way that I can only stay in a museum for ninety minutes before I feel the need for a stiff drink and a plush bar stool, I have a limited tolerance for meandering in and out of boutiques. 

But online is another story entirely.  I can hop from retailer to retailer with a flick of my finger, browsing hungrily (but away from the prying eyes of salespeople) for as long as my interest holds.  And not only am I hopping from retailer to retailer, but really from world to world.  I'm not bound by a particular neighborhood theme as I might be in say, the West Village (expensive chains) or Soho (varying degrees of chic).

Online I can start with the rarefied world of Vivre, flicking through pages of resort wear, hostess gifts, extravagant luggage and chunky, expensive jewelry which only the monied bohemian set could ever pull off with any sort of panache.   I could easily see myself in this Sag Harbor Tunic, lolling about the pool at a tasteful weekend home.

Perhaps as Babe Paley once did at Round Hill..

If I find that world becomes dull, I can bounce over to the internationally oriented Far Fetch and browse the edgier wares.  I have the inventory of boutiques in Copenhagen, Hong Kong, London and L.A. at my fingertips...with all that choice I am nearly drunk with the possibilities.  But it is this leather dress from Rika that I can't get out of my head.

Perhaps a bit warm for the unseasonable humidity we've been having?  No matter, it is a fantasy after all.  There is no humidity in my fantasy world.

Bored with clothes, I can easily make the switch over to the cheeky housewares at Horne.  How perfectly amusing is this fruit bowl?

It looks simultaneously like a massive hand cupping your spoils from the market and an abandoned banana bunch which has been forced into practical service.  It makes me laugh.

These sorts of perfectly white items always make me think of Swedish interiors (Emma's Design Blog showcases the most perfect examples) so I sidle on over to Swedishness to get my fix...

This Skultuna brass and white enamel bowl would look so perfect next to the bananas.  And that logo?  To die.  I am suck a sucker for a crown imprint on my dishes.

All of this emphasis on the kitchen puts me in a festive mood so I head over to one of my favorite little shops, Spartan.  I could happily purchase virtually everything on the site, but am always drawn most intently to these spanish wine glasses, which I was first introduced to through the always inspiring Remodelista.

Perfect for a party (I can spare my Riedels!), especially up on my roof deck.  Any unused glasses would quite adeptly shield a few votive candles from the occasional breeze, lending an undeserving sense of coordination to the night's gathering.

But enough about food, wine and social gatherings...I'm in the mood to adorn myself now.  I can't resist a bit of sparkle, especially around the face.  Roseark is always good for some shine, but it is not always an attainable shine, as they tend more towards real gems rather than imposters.  However, these single deco strand strand earrings would fit within most everyone's budget, even in these lean times.

But perhaps it is time to move on to something a bit darker, a bit sharper?  Made Her Think has such items in spades.  This ring for instance.

I love the vaguely brass knuckles vibe.

But at heart I'm a lover rather than a fighter, so I would of course have to balance it out with the kissing swallows.

A perfect souvenir from my virtual trip around the world.
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