April Showers Bring May Flowers…and other goodies, too!!

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April was a bit vicious here in parts of Texas this Spring, so we are hoping for a milder – yet pleasant – May.

Today was so beautiful! Our windows and sliding glass door were open to the slight breezes and 70ish weather. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. I was even able to get in long walk around our neighborhood.  Perfect day in my book…

Our local farmer’s market re-opens on Saturday morning. I look forward to renewing my connections with the local farmers, bakers, and other merchants from last year. Inspiration flows around here with all that fresh food as a backdrop…


In preparation for summer I have been having fun with simple syrups. Just this week I made two new syrup infusions: one with lemon and basil; the other with lemon and jalapeño (for when you need to spice things up!).

The Lemon-Basil combo is one I have been making for some time. I like to keep it on hand for summer drinks like lemonade and iced-tea…it’s also lovely in cocktails. I play around with this syrup in Vodka and Gin based drinks, sometimes adding club soda to lighten things up. It’s versatile and I’m always finding new ways to use it.

The Lemon-Jalapeño syrup has provided a new level of fun here! It’s been the highlight of a new drink concoction I created just last week. I use Hendricks Gin as the base spirit, then add in lemon juice, the simple syrup and a touch of Pineapple juice. The syrup really gives it a kick! I then muddle in some pineapple chunks, basil and a jalapeño slice (because, really, can one have too much spice?) and it is served over ice. I do not strain it per my own preference, but if your taste buds like it strained then go for it!

I have the recipe below, and below that is the recipe for a simple syrup…would love your feedback if you try it. And if you have any of your own infusions I’d love to hear about them, too!


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Lemon-Jalapeño Pineapple Cocktail

  • 1.5 parts Hendricks Gin
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 1 part lemon-jalapeño simple syrup
  • 1 T fresh pineapple juice
  • 1 chunk of fresh pineapple, 1 large basil leaf, 1 slice of jalapeño (for muddling)

Stir the Gin, Lemon Juice, Simple Syrup and Pineapple Juice together in a tall glass. Add the pineapple chunk, basil, and jalapeño slice to the glass and muddle them into the mixture. Add cubed ice and stir to chill the drink. Strain (if you prefer) into a cocktail glass. I like to keep the muddling mix and some of the ice in so it stays chilled…but there are no wrong ways as long as you like it!! 


*simple syrup: I use equal parts water to sugar, bring to a boil, boil for 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Once cool I store it in the fridge. It should last for at least 2 weeks.

For a lemon simple syrup I add lemon peels with the water and sugar at the beginning. After it has boiled, I remove it from the heat. At that point it could stand as is, or you could add in basil or jalapeño and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes then strain. You can add in other herbs/spices, too. Perhaps Rosemary or Lavender. Maybe some Thyme…the possibilities are as high as your imagination will go…don’t be afraid to try other combinations. And please let me know if you do! 🙂

One of my other favorites is a spiced syrup. I infused it with red pepper flakes, star anise, cinnamon, and cardamom. I have used this in red sangrias to add some depth of flavor. Mmm, sangria…sigh…

 

 

Basil Pesto

Late season basil...to be made into pesto.
Late season basil…to be made into pesto.

Today I harvested what will probably be the last of this season’s basil. I carefully washed and dried the leaves, and they now wait for me to transform them into pesto for the freezer. The scent of basil has become the day’s perfume, both on my hands and in my house. I am drowning in its aromas…and I mean that in a great way!

It is funny how I never used to like the taste of basil. But then suddenly, one day…I did. And it became an obsession. It is the first thing I plant in the Spring as I dream of ripe red tomatoes and creamy mozzarella. I use it in everything, including drinks. Have you ever had a Gin and Tonic with a few sprigs of basil? Divine!

My Basil-Lemon simple syrup gets used in all sorts of creations as well. It makes a refreshing lemonade, and it also can be made into an ‘adult’ beverage with the simple addition of either vodka or gin and some fresh lemon juice. So many possibilities…

Nothing beats the taste of a summer-kissed corn, cucumber and tomato salad with torn leaves of basil gently folded into it, then drizzled with an olive oil dressing. Unless some avocado was added. And perhaps some red onion. Sigh…

I’m sure I will contemplate next year’s basil crop as I chop and mince and grate and mix all my ingredients, transforming them into a magical pesto. I will reminisce about the meals I’ve had and dream of the meals yet to come each time I use it.

I don’t have a recipe. I start with the basil, then add in the other ingredients (pine nuts, parmigiano-reggiano, garlic and olive oil) in whatever proportions my taste buds dictate. I will keep mixing and adding and tasting until I deem it to be just right, both in flavor and texture. At the end of the day I will have basil and garlic emanating from my pores.

Heavenly…

 

 

Lula – Take 3

In the oven: Crackers – made from discard sourdough starter; various toppings. (See recipe at bottom of post)

Focaccia 3 ways: truffle sea salt; fresh herbs; fig, goat cheese and caramelized onions. There is also a pizza bianca thrown in there (made from leftover pizza dough)
Focaccia 3 ways: truffle sea salt; fresh herbs; fig, goat cheese and caramelized onions. There is also a pizza bianca thrown in there (made from leftover pizza dough)

Lula is my bubbly new sourdough starter. She is named after a character in the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. Lula’s character sports a huge personality; someone practically bursting from the seams (literally). She brings life to the series even though she is not the main character. I felt it an appropriate homage to name my sourdough starter after her.

This is my third rendition of Lula. Lula I and Lula II faded into the sunset a few years back. But I am ready to try again. I finally have had the time to hang around and see her  properly tended to and fed on a regular basis. Hey, third times a charm, right?

In this version I took a different approach (after all, what is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results…). In the past I made my starter completely from scratch. I began with organic bread flour and water (reverse osmosis).  It is perfectly acceptable to stop there and make the starter from only flour and water; however, I added organic grapes which have a natural yeast to help get the ball rolling. And it does work. I have made a bread starter several times in the past with success. It does, however, take a bit longer to build up to its full baking strength, and seems quite a bit less resilient to the ‘occasional’ user error (neglect). And it was, ahem, user error which led to the downfall of Lulas I and II.

This time I began with a starter culture which I received as a freebie from Cultures for Health last year. It has been patiently waiting in my freezer for my travel schedule to open up…and for my life in general to have a bit of extra time. The opportunity arose this month and I took full advantage!

I was worried it had been in the freezer too long or that perhaps it had not been handled properly in its shipping. I was not in any way expecting the results I got once I finally mixed her up. An established starter took way less time to build up to its full potential. The instructions said it could take up to 7 days to be ready – my previous versions took closer to 14 days to reach full potential, so this was already an improvement. In reality, Lula III was ready to bake in only 3 days. Three days!!

Sourdough Crackers
Sourdough Crackers

Amazing!

It was such an unexpected surprise that I was caught unprepared to actually bake with her. I figured I would have time to leisurely peruse my bread baking books and scroll through some of my favorite online sourdough sites to come up with some fun recipes to try. While I have finally taken the time to do so, I have yet to make an actual loaf of bread. To date I have made homemade crackers with some of the discard starter – of which there is a LOT; sourdough waffles, and focaccia bread.

We are having fun already and the party has only just begun…

This starter is AMAZING!
This starter is AMAZING!
Day 1...a new beginning
Day 1…a new beginning

Sourdough Crackers* 

*adapted from the King Arthur site

  • 1 cup Flour (I used half whole wheat, half All-Purpose)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup unfed (“discarded”) sourdough starter
  • 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • oil for brushing – I used olive oil. 
  • coarse salt, chopped herbs, poppy seeds, sesame seeds – for sprinkling on top. (optional)

1. Mix the flour, salt, sourdough starter, and butter to make a smooth dough. I use only a spatula for this…no fancy tools needed!

2. Divide the dough in quarters; Wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. I’ve kept it in the fridge for several hours before and had them turn out just fine.

3. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

4. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough to desired thickness. I prefer them very thin and crispy. If you leave them thicker they will not be as crisp. It’s all to do with your preference (experiment here!! It’s only dough…). 6) Transfer the dough and parchment together onto a baking sheet. Lightly brush with oil and then sprinkle the salt over the top of the crackers.

5. Cut the dough into about 1 1/2″ squares. I use my pizza cutter.

6. Prick each square with the tines of a fork.

7. Bake the crackers for about 12 minutes, until the squares are starting to brown around the edges. Turn halfway through cooking time. They may need to stay in a tad longer if you leave them thicker.

8. When browned, remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Store airtight at room temperature for up to a week; freeze for longer storage.

 

Raspberries from Heaven


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“A house needs a grandma in it.” ~Louisa May Alcott


My grandmother’s birthday was this past Tuesday. I passed much of that day thinking about her. About her life, about my life with her…about how much she meant to me. I am quite certain that in her own way she saved me. Grandmom was my biggest cheerleader.

I spent many school-free summer days and nights at my grandparent’s house. I can still hear the squeaking of the metal springs on the back porch glider as we swayed back and forth…back and forth…back and forth…a methodic, eerie squeak, yet oddly comforting at the same time. We would sit together: me and her and my grandpop. They listened intently as I read my latest creations – often poetry, but sometimes a short story or the occasional play (of course it was all wonderful, and I was the best writer ever). At lunch we dunked saltines in our hot tea (Lipton, of course), crunched sandwiches layered with potato chips or smeared grape jelly on grilled cheeses*, and afterwards we enjoyed Breyer’s Ice-Cream out of the etched glass dishes she kept in her dining room cabinet, seemingly for just that purpose.

And in July we picked raspberries.

Whenever I eat even one raspberry, I am instantly transported back to her house on any given July day of my childhood. Pine trees shaded the backyard; shirts and pants and sheets hung from the clothesline to dry; hydrangeas bloomed a beautiful bluish-purple hue. Train tracks ran along the back edge of the property, one section of them lined by raspberry bushes. Even now, I can almost feel the dew on my feet and smell the pungent scent of pine as I crossed through the yard to get to that luscious fruit.

As early as the middle of July, but for sure by the end, those berries reached the height of perfection. She and I would each grab a bowl and head for the back of the property. I don’t recall that we talked about anything in particular as we harvested, although she did show me which berries were ready to pick and which ones still needed to ripen. I loved to pluck the particularly ripe ones straight from the bush and pop them directly into my mouth. Each bite was like eating sunshine itself. Heaven.

It took no time at all before our bowls were filled…with a few pauses here and there for sampling (just to be sure!). Many did not survive the short walk back to the house, and even fewer made it to the table later.

Anything that did survive was usually mixed into Jello for the evening’s after dinner treat. Or perhaps served with that Breyer’s Ice-Cream I mentioned earlier. 

To this day I think of my grandmother with each and every raspberry I eat. Every. Time. And when I encounter an especially ripe one – one that is extra juicy and fragrant and tastes just like Sunshine itself – I know in that instant she is with me. She is there in spirit enveloping me with Love and Happiness.

There is a sense of wonder knowing a certain taste or smell – or even a touch – can take me back in time. Back to a place where my grandmother is still with me. Encouraging me. Loving me. And knowing in those moments that she has never really left me. All along, she has been right there. Right here. 

And that comforts me to no end.

*“Tea and Saltines…Grilled Cheese with Grape Jelly”

Autumn Rising

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonize. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” ~ George Eliot


In the oven: Stone Fruit Cobbler, to be served with ice-cream on the side (see recipe below).


Labor Day is upon us – the unofficial end of summer. I have spent the past few days in Seattle where the weather is cooler – I even saw someone wearing boots yesterday!! Hooray for boot weather! But even in Texas I have sensed the sneaking up of Autumn, despite the heat that remains. There is an underlying crispness to the air, and I have noticed the subtle disappearance of light from each day as summer gradually fades. 

School is back in session, shavings from freshly sharpened pencils thick in the air while children reluctantly leave carefree days of summer behind (and parents secretly rejoice!); football blares from TVs across the country. Yes, September 21st may be the official date, but we all know Labor Day signals the true end of Summer.

I rather prefer Autumn. Autumn feels romantic. Thinking about the rich aromas of spice and dampness and fallen leaves excites me. I look forward to its brilliant hues of gold streaking the landscape around me. Even though I live in Texas where Fall is more alluded to rather than truly experienced, the idea of needing a more substantial meal is appealing. 

And so it is that I welcome Labor Day with open arms and a free heart. It is more my ‘new year’ than New Year’s Day. My yearly resolutions are set in September rather than January. I like to set them and then let them hibernate for a bit, allowing them to come to full fruition in the Spring. At least in theory. 

Most of us think of back yard BBQs and end of summer pool parties when we think of Labor Day. There is football season and back to school and cooler weather right around the corner. 

But what, exactly, are we honoring on this day?

The first Labor Day in the United States was held in 1882 in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.  Oregon was the first state to declare it a ‘real’ holiday in 1887, and it was finally 1894 when President Grover Cleveland named it an official holiday for the entire country. Other countries held their own versions in May (called ‘International Worker’s Day’); however, the Haymarket Affair* had occurred in May of 1886. When President Cleveland made Labor Day a holiday he worried it would be associated with the event, thus causing further rioting and re-igniting any anger still smoldering. And thus, Labor Day happens on the First Monday of September rather than the first of May. 

This year my husband and I will celebrate the weekend as we have the past several years. The Sunday before (would that be ‘Labor Day Eve?’) we will participate in our annual Fantasy Football Draft party. Everyone brings a dish to share and we spend the afternoon eating, drinking and choosing our [winning] teams for the upcoming season. And the next day there is generally another cook out…sometimes at our home, but often hosted by others. Again, it is usually a ‘bring-a-dish-to-share’ event. This year I am bringing dessert to the draft party. I am making a stone fruit cobbler (see recipe below) and also bringing homemade brownies.

What does Labor Day mean to you? How do you typically spend the weekend?

*Haymarket Affair: Occurred in May, 1886 in Chicago. It began as a peaceful demonstration, but it turned deadly when a dynamite bomb was ignited, killing seven police officers and at least four other civilians, and leaving many others wounded. The rally began in support of an eight hour work day. At that time, it was not uncommon to work twelve hour days seven days a week.


Recipe: Stone Fruit Cobbler

Streusel Ingredients:

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/4 cup ground pecans (optional)
  • 1/2 cup Light Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 6 T cold butter

Stone Fruit Filling

  • 4 lbs mixture of stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, plums, etc) – pitted and cut into 1/2″ slices
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice (approx. 1 lemon)
  • 4 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

Butter a 9″ x 13″ baking dish and set aside.

Streusel: In a medium bowl, mix all streusel ingredients except the butter. Cube the butter and cut into the dry ingredients until it is crumbly. Set aside.

Filling: Toss the fruit with the lemon juice, then the flour to coat. Mix in the remaining ingredients and pour into a 9×13 baking dish. Sprinkle the streusel topping evenly over the fruit.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the top is golden and the fruit is bubbly.

It is best to let it sit for about 30 minutes before serving. I like to serve it with either a scoop of vanilla ice-cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

Enjoy!!