Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Brownie's Brownies

   
Mary and I would listen to these 45's for hours!
 Picture it; Sunnyvale California, 1962.  Ray Charles could be heard crooning I Can’t Stop Loving You, on the radio.  The Four Seasons told us Big Girls Don’t Cry, some of us were doing the Twist to Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again (like we did last summer) while others were perfecting the Wah-Watusi.  And though we were only seven years old, Mary and I busied ourselves lip-syncing to every Beatle song we knew, with wooden spoon or stick in hand to mimic our stage microphones. 
Who among you still has this LP (long playing)?

     Life was so simple back then.  Our only concerns were being first out on the playground.  Mary and I were the four-square champs, consistently eliminating the other players until she and I were the only two left in the over-sized paint-faded boxes.  We then, joyfully competed to see who was really on her game that recess.  After months of beating all the other kids out at four-square, Mary and I moved on to tether-ball. That took us a bit longer to master, but master it we did.  By mid-October, Mary and I found ourselves bored to tears with the few options available to second graders.



     As autumn leaves crunched beneath our feet walking home one afternoon, Mary announced her intention to join a Brownie Troop.  “You want to join Brownies?  What’s Brownies?”  I had been feeling worried about our close friendship, lately.  Mary was my best friend, my only friend really.  And in my painfully shy and quiet demeanor, characteristic of skinny, homely girls, I had somehow given in to thoughts that Mary wanted more out of life than me.  I was certain she was yearning for prettier friends, friends with more money, friends who were as smart as she was.  This announcement of wanting to join something called Brownies brought those fears and insecurities to the forefront.

    “Brownies are Girl Scouts, silly,” Mary responded.  “Miss Stone told us about it today before we were excused from class.  She said, girls our age come together and do fun things.”
Mary had pretty red hair - mine was a mousy brown-auburn.

     “Do they make brownies?”  Though I felt socked in the stomach at the mention of “other girls our age,” I was intrigued.  I had always wanted to learn how make brownies.  I loved them. 

    “I don’t know about making brownies. But she said they do arts, crafts, they do learn some cooking and they go on field trips to help people.  I’m going to ask my mother if I can join.”

     “Can I join?”  Not lifting my gaze from the tops of my black and white saddle shoes, noticing my white bobby socks had once again slipped down inside my shoes, I waited for Mary to answer. 

     “Yes!  That’s why I’m telling you about it, Deborah.  I want you to join with me!  We do everything together!”


    Somewhat relieved, I took on a new worry as we turned the corner onto our street: will my parents let me join?  Money was always a concern in my household even though both my parents worked.  Mary’s mother stayed home. 

     My parents did let me join.  Surprisingly my mother didn’t balk at the weekly dues or the cost of a uniform and sash.  She was happy I wanted to do something that put me with other little girl and involved activities she deemed far more useful in life than singing Beatle songs.  I stressed to my mother my intention of learning how to make brownies.

     After three months of weekly meetings, Mary and I had learned how to make spiral lanyards using plastic lace, how to disinfect every corner of our kitchens and bathrooms and how to make wallets.  We would sew squares of felt together by using a large upholstery needle, a hot glue gun, and small remnants of felt  along with spare buttons.  This was one of my more creative escapades as a Brownie.   Every adult in my family, who carried keys, was awarded one of my handmade lanyards while all my babysitters were given wallets. Both Mary and I earned our Good Housekeeping badges by having our mothers keep track and record the number and type of household chores we did for an entire month.  I still keep the cleanest garage and closets in the land.  But to my chagrin, we had not yet been taught to bake brownies.  I was soon distracted from this let-down, when our troop leaders announced it was officially Cookie Season. 
I think I'd like to make these popular again!

Still so cute

And fully functional!


     Cookies sales for Girl Scouts (GS) go back as far as 1917.  By 1933, the now famous tradition of selling cookies was typically a young girl’s first exposure to any kind of real business example.  The tasks of setting financial goals, planning and predicting labor hours, familiarizing oneself with reading and understanding demographics, and of course how to express herself courteously and succinctly were all achieved through the cookie experience.  There was a short  interruption of cookie sales in 1944 when eggs, milk, sugar and other staples were in short supply due to the World War II.   But after the war, GS troops nation-wide were back selling those famous Sugar Cookies along with, Chocolate and Vanilla Cream Sandwiches, Shortbread and Cooky-Mints (now known as Thin Mints).  The newest addition was the “Do-si-Do” or Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookie.
Vintage 
         After that afternoon’s meeting all the girls in our Troop # 831 gathered their order forms and the manila envelopes in which we would place the money we collected.  We were instructed to walk around our respective neighborhoods, dressed in uniform and explain how the selling of cookies help GS all over the country learn important things, like cleaning, cooking, organizing and most essential, how to be helpful and productive young women.  The money also helped send us on field trips to interesting places and for those lucky enough to have troop leaders who did that kind of thing, camping!  Of course we were encouraged to talk about how delicious each type of cookie was.  Armed and ready, each little girl headed home eager to earn her proficiency badge for selling the most cookies.

     Instinctively knowing we were stronger together, Mary and I decided to pool our efforts and sell cookies as a two-some.  It made sense; I had nearly three times more relatives living nearby than Mary.  But her mother was active at their church and the Women of Foreign Lands group (she was Hungarian) giving her access to a great number of people outside our neighborhood and general school population. 

    Within one week, we had sold three times as many cookies as any other girl in our troop.  When co-leader Miss Stone made her announcement to the troop as to whom among us was projected to earning the much coveted proficiency badge, she was astounded to see both Mary and I had turned in far more cash compared to the other girls.  Swimming in kudos and cheers, Mary and I went home feeling like the Brownies of Wall Street, well on our way to skipping along streets lined with proficiency badges along with accolades from our peers.

   By the time the weekend arrived, Mary and I were pumped and ready.  It was my mother, always up for a good competition, who innocently and off-handedly came up with the idea.  Moaning we had already worked our way through the neighborhood and those within walking distance, Mary and I had run out of customers.  Mother’s comment was something about lemonade stands and cookie stands.  With our cookie supply replenished Mary and I realized we needed a better plan.  One that didn’t involve walking around and bugging people we had already visited and sold to, twice.
 
     “What about setting up a cookie/brownie stand?  Kind of what your momma talked about,” suggested Mary.  Believing Mary was not only prettier than I, but smarter, I immediately agreed to the idea.  Running across the street from my house to hers, we charged into the kitchen where Mary’s mother was busy preparing some Hungarian dish.  I smelled cabbage and ground lamb, tomatoes and something else unrecognizable.  The dinner smells at my house included Kentucky Fried Chicken, Rice-A-Roni (the San Francisco treat) and spaghetti.  Though Mary and I were now on our third year of best-friendship, I still had not grown accustomed to the heavy scents of the foods constantly cooking in her house.  Trying my best not to breathe too deeply, I stood by, chiming in only when appropriate, as Mary proceeded to explain our wonderful idea.  She finished by asking her mother if we could use the card table her parents unfolded every Wednesday  night for their pinochle game with their grownup friends.  Mary then added, without hesitation, that her mother, please drive us to the nearby shopping center so we could sell to more people.  Mary was the apple of her mother’s eye.  No was a word Mary rarely heard. 

     The next morning, telling my parents how Mary’s mother gave us permission to sell in front of the shopping center and how many boxes of cookies we would be selling it only made sense that I too be given permission: which I was.  From nine o’clock in the morning until noon that day, Mary and I had sold every box of cookies issued to us the day before. 
Those are cookies embroidered on this badge 

     By the time the Girl Scout Cookie Selling Season had ended, Mary and I had not only earned our proficiency badges for sales, we were mentioned in the Girl Scouts of America Newsletter as the top salesgirls in the state!  We were thrilled.  This was more positive attention than I had ever remembered receiving.  My flat-chest was so full of pride, it practically exploded.  Mary and I were honored in a special ceremony before our families and other troop members.  But we didn’t stop there.
And when I was a GS Leader for my daughter's Brownie troop - I insisted we make denim Sit-Upons

  Weeks later our Troop leaders began preparing us for outdoor activities for the coming spring.  We would be making “Sit-upons” so that we could sit comfortably on the ground as we ventured into the realm of plants, flowers and nature: botany.  Ordinarily this would have made me quite excited.  My love of flowers and birds has been with me for as long as I can remember.  However, I couldn’t keep my feelings inside; “Mary, when are we going to learn how to make brownies?”  I lamented, “We are, after-all Brownies, so we should know how to make brownies.”

    “Have you asked Miss Stone about teaching us, Deborah?”

    “No, I’m too scared,” I mumbled.

    “Fine, I’ll get my momma to teach us how.  She’s a great cook!
 
     “Does she make brownies?”

     “I don’t know, but she can make anything!”

   Oh dear, I thought.  But Mary’s mother did teach us how to make brownies.  The best I’d ever tasted, chewy, chocolaty and moist.  They were so easy. I was genuinely astonished.

     So it was, on a warm, Saturday morning in late spring, Mary and I found ourselves complaining about our perpetual state of not having any money.  B & J’s Market across the street was our favourite hangout.  The place we’d go to buy a variety of candies.  We had gone weeks without a Sugar Daddy or chew of Bazooka Bubble Gum.  I ached for a Black Cow or better, an Abba Zabba.  Our parents said no to each and every one of our requests for money.  We searched with zeal in the cushions of both sofas in both households.  Mary went so far as to creep into her parents’ bedroom and wriggled her fingers into the pockets of her father’s trousers looking for loose change.  Not even the payphone next-door to B & J’s had change sitting in the small slot.  That was the one place we could always count on to find a spare nickel or dime. In the early ‘60’s that was plenty of money for two little girls to revel in.  Then Mary, the genius between us, re-visited that wonderful idea.
 
    Together we scurried through our respective kitchens, gathering all the ingredients needed to bake brownies.  Using Mary’s kitchen and her mother, we prepared two dozen.  Then, again, Mary’s mother doing as Mary directed, we changed our clothes and set up the card table along with our make-shift sign in front of B & J’s Market and began selling our wares.  We sold every one of those brownies!  Leaving our post and making our way into the market, we shopped for candy to our hearts’ content.  The following Saturday we did it again, this time making four dozen brownies.  We made so much money we gave some to our siblings so they could go buy candy.
Armed and ready!



      It was on the third Saturday, I was merrily chipping away to a prospective customer about how delicious our brownies tasted when we both heard the voice: “Mary, Deborah, is that you?” 
Though the voice sounded familiar the tone was less than warm and friendly.  It was Miss Stone.  “What are you girls doing?”  Miss Stone loomed over us like a gigantic shadow as though we were doing something wrong.

    “Um, we’re selling brownies,” answered Mary. 

    “I can see that.  And you’re wearing your Brownie uniforms.”  Miss Stone’s tone was still clipped and her eyes narrowed.  I had never seen this look on her before.

    “Well of course we are,” replied Mary.  Her voice now more firm.  How she could’ve sounded so calm was beyond me.  I was shaking in my flip-flops.  “We’re Brownies and we’re selling brownies, so we have to wear our uniforms.”

    Just then a customer made their way over and purchased four brownies.  My hands trembled as I did my best to hurriedly wrap each chocolate treat in wax paper and take the twenty cents.  “Hope this goes to good use for the Brownies,” the customer said as he walked away.  Our handwritten sign read: Help Your Lokal Brownies Buy Home-made Brownies Made by Two REAL Brownies!!!

    “Do you girls know what you’re doing?  Do your parents know what you’re doing?”  Now, Miss Stone sounded downright angry. Mary and I looked at one another.  Finally I spoke, “Yes,” I replied meekly.  That was the best I could do.

    “They know you’re mis-using and mis-leading people?  They know you’re taking money under false pretense?” 

    Neither Mary nor I were quite sure what false pretense meant exactly, but we sensed we were in trouble.  After explaining in seven year old detail how we were giving some money away, not keeping all of it, Miss Stone insisted we break down shop.   Giving Miss Stone our earnings for the day to apply to Troop # 831’s field trip fund we walked home to get Mary’s mother so she could help us with the card table, sign and the now, empty money box. 
  
     That was a few lessons well learned!   Though no one can say we weren’t industrious and entrepreneurial.  I still prepare those chewy, chocolaty, moist brownies.  And I do sell them, openly and honestly, for profit and on behalf of my personal chef business.
What can I say?  I'm still a GS at heart.

  Because I still, "Promise to do my best . . . to help other people.  And to do a good deed everyday," I’d like to share Mrs. Berg’s recipe for brownies; with my own updates and adaptations.
Nuts inside

No nuts, but chocolate ganache and a cherry on top


Ingredients

8 Tblsp unsalted butter - melted                                               1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup good quality unsweetened cocoa power
1/8 tsp salt                                                                                1 tsp espresso powder
2 whole eggs                                                                            ½ cup all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp baking powder
½ cup chopped nuts + some for garnish if desired

Process                                                                                       Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
In a large mixing bowl, combine melted butter, sugar, cocoa powder, with a whisk.  Add salt and espresso powder.  Add eggs, one at a time, stirring between additions.  Gently fold in, salt, flour and baking powder.  If desired add nuts.
Pour batter into a well greased and floured 8 x 8 square baking pan.  Bake for 30-40 minutes until firm in center.
Allow brownies to cool completely before cutting into individual squares.

                                                                                 Makes about 12 brownies 

Friday, July 7, 2017

In Recognition Of . . .

Who remembers this logo?

The line would extend out the small door onto the sidewalk, winding its way down the street edging towards the next block. The sight was a kind of human rainbow displaying bands of colour and texture; halter tops, cut-offs, flip flops, afros, tie-dye and beads.  Friends and neighbors chatted and fanned themselves while patiently waiting to place their order for what all agreed was the best ice cream, ever.  Early September, the month when temperatures are known to soar in the City by the Bay and a cup or a cone mounded high with Bud’s cooling confection was the only remedy. 
   
 Bud’s Ice Cream was a small hole-in-the-wall around the block from my grandparent’s house in the Noe Valley District. And yes, this neighborhood ice cream shop was actually in Noe Valley, though I’ve seen postings stating it was located in the Castro District.  No matter where you drew your District lines, there were few among us, who weren’t willing to stand in line at the corner of Castro and 24th, for one of Bud’s cones or sundaes.  I was maybe eleven years when I was allowed to walk to the shop by myself and become part of the neighborhood landscape.  On that first day of more to come, I did my best balancing the small order of treats back to the Victorian house on Jersey Street.  Vanilla for Papa, Pistachio for Uncle Orieto, Chocolate-Cherry for Titi and Rocky Road for myself. 

  I’m sure you’re thinking , summers in San Francisco are NOT that warm.  This could be due an experience you shared, similar to that of Mark Twain’s.  Resulting in his famous line; “The coldest winter I ever saw was a summer in San Francisco.”  Which, by the way, is a disputed quote, as there is some record disproving Twain ever said this. Whether Twain actually found himself bundled up and shivering during the months of June and July in the Foggy City, it seems clear to me he never visited in September and certainly didn’t know about Bud’s because he never wrote about it. 

Most residents of Noe Valley, Castro and the Mission knew it was worth the consistently long wait for a crispy cone filled with Bud’s rich, creamy concoction of sweetness churned with an abundance of whole milk and heavy cream.  Back then there was no Ben & Jerry’s, no Fro-Yo and Gluten-Free?  We loved gluten!  We really loved Bud Scheidelman and his cousin, Alvin Edlin, who later owned the creamery and incorporated all kinds of delicious additions into their happy creations.  Chunks of real fruit, chopped up (hometown) Ghirardelli Chocolate, thick ribbons of caramel and marshmallow and nuts galore.


It didn’t take long after another Ice Cream shop opened across the street from Bud’s, Alvin, decided offering the highest in quality ingredients was the only way to beat the competition into soggy, drippy submission.  And it did.  Those who worked at Bud’s say Alvin was always yelling; “Put more cherries in the cherry Ice Cream!  Add more fudge to the fudge Ice Cream!  When my customers order caramel Ice Cream, I want a chunk of caramel candy in every bite!”  Hence Bud’s famous slogan: “The finest ingredients and too much of them.”

Today we have a mecca of Ice Cream options to explore for our indulgent pleasure.  But, making your own Ice Cream from scratch is so blasted easy.   Why not just make some yourself, using the very best ingredients just like Bud’s? 


Bud’s focus was Ice Cream and while I do like Ice Cream I really like Gelato, also quite easy to prepare.  So what are the differences between the cooling confections Ice Cream, Gelato?

First about Ice Cream. Did you know ice cream is one of the top ten food items Americans love best?  It’s right up there with pizza, burgers, fries and hotdogs.  And did you know we Americans declared July as National Ice Cream Month?  Yes, it's nationally recognized.  Gosh American marketers are geniuses.   The biggest difference about Ice Cream is the heavy cream.  And it has more sugar than Gelato.  But hey, if you’re going to have dessert or “cheat,” then do it right!  I’m not one for the mediocrity of low-cal cookies or non-fat shakes and smoothies.  Or worse, non-fat ice-milk!  If you’re going to treat yourself then by all means, do it to the fullest!   Now Gelato has less fat, using only whole milk, no heavy cream and not as much sugar.  It’s also churned slower and for less time.  Resulting in less air being incorporated into the mixture, which makes Gelato denser than Ice Cream. 

  Here are 2 recipes, one for Ice Cream and one for Gelato, both so easy and ultra-delicious. 
You can purchase ice cream machines for well under $100.00

* Note: you need an ice cream machine.  They’re not expensive and are so easy to find. 
My new favourtie flavor


CHEF DEBORAH’S VERSION OF CHOCOLATE-CHERRY ICE CREAM
Ingredients
2 cups heavy whipping cream                     1 cup whole milk
½ cup dark Dutch cocoa powder                ¾ cup granulated sugar (I use super fine, Bakers or Caster)
¼ teaspoon salt                                              6 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste                     ¼ cup bitter-sweet chocolate chunks       
  ½ cup maraschino cherries-cut in half

Process
In large mixing bowl whisk egg yolks until they turn light yellow in colour.  Set to the side.

In a large, heavy saucepot, over medium heat, combine heavy cream, milk, cocoa powder, sugar and salt.  Bring just to a simmer then remove from heat.  

Temper the egg yolks, by adding 2-3 ladles of the warm milk mixture to whisked eggs, one ladle at a time.
 
Making sure to whisk in each addition before adding the next ladle. 

Once the egg yolks have been combined with the warm milk additions, pour the entire egg mixture into the saucepot with the remaining cream/milk mixture.  Return pot to the heat and continue stirring until mixture thickens and reaches 175-180 degrees (F).  Do not allow mixture to boil.

Strain the ice cream base by pouring over a strainer or sieve into a clean bowl and whisk in vanilla paste.

 Place bowl over an ice bath or in the fridge to cool completely.  Once cooled pour base into canister of your ice cream machine and turn on to ice cream setting or just “on” depending on what type of machine you have.

During last few minutes of churning slowly add chocolate chunks and cherry halves.  Scoop into bowls or cones.
                                                                                                                           Makes 1 Quart

How can you say "no" this summer delight?


PISTACHIO GELATO
Ingredients
3 cups whole milk                            6 egg yolks                  ¾ cup super fine sugar (Bakers or Caster)
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste                                            Pistachio paste * Recipe below
Shelled pistachios for garnish

Pistachio Paste
Ingredients
1 cup shelled unsalted pistachios               2 Tblsp sugar           1 tsp olive oil

Process
Begin by blanching shelled nuts in a pot of simmering water for about 2 minutes.  Immediately remove nuts using a slotted spoon or spider and plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop cooking process.  Remove nuts and spread on a paper towel in a single layer to dry.

Once nuts have completely dried, place in a food processor (don’t use a blender, you won’t be able to get all the paste out) with sugar and olive oil.  Blend together until a nice, but rather dry, paste has formed.  Scoop out into a clean, small bowl until ready to use.
Gelato

Process
In medium bowl, whisk egg yolks until they turn light yellow in colour.  Set aside.
In a heavy saucepot, over medium heat, combine milk and sugar.  Bring just to a simmer, then remove from heat. 

Add one ladle of warm milk mixture to bowl of egg yolks and whisk.  Do this two more times to temper your eggs.  Then pour entire egg/milk mixture back into saucepot and replace on heat.  Continue stirring (not whisking) with a wooden spoon until mixture thickens and reaches 175-180 degrees (F).  Do not allow mixture to boil. 

Remove from heat and pour over a strainer or sieve into a clean bowl.  Stir in vanilla bean paste and prepared pistachio paste until well combined. Set bowl on an ice bath or in the fridge until completely cooled.

Once cooled, pour gelato base into your ice cream machine and run to “soft serve” setting or according to manufacturer’s directions for gelato. 
                                                                                                                          Makes  1 Quart

It’s only a childhood memory now, but Bud’s Ice Cream was a jumping place back in the ‘70’s.  No longer part of the old neighborhood, you’ll find a deli at 24th and Castro.  Though I read somewhere you can still purchase Bud’s Eggnog on line. 
 That was another luxurious and decadent ice cream flavor back in the day, available year round.

 Now, if Marty Mcfly unexpectedly showed up and asked me where I wanted to go in that DeLorean , without hesitation, I’d tell him the corner of Castro and 24th, 1977.  “My treat.” 
I scream, you scream we all scream for . . .

Friday, June 2, 2017

IL NOSTRO PASTO PREFERITO (Our Favourite Meal)

 
I'm noticing I have LOTS of photos of Nancy on lounge chairs!
We were sitting on lounge chairs, moving them from spot to spot in our attempts to stay in the warmth of the sun while simultaneously keeping its dazzling glare out of our eyes.  As we sipped coffee and munched on pastries it struck us, this same time last year, we were hiking along the Franciscan trail in Central Italy.  Maybe it was the pastry, a morning tradition I have perpetuated since our return, that brought the memory forward.  Along with the fact we were relaxed and savoring every bite.  Not engaged in that rush, rush, rush, a typical American approach meals.  There was no “breakfast on the run” for Nancy and me that Saturday.
No better way to start the day.  Along with a caffe latte, of course.
      We sat back recalling a few of the highlights; the green, rolling hills of the scenery that surrounded us each day.  The warm and friendly people of the country, the day we hiked without uttering a word out of respect for the spirituality of our location, the immense churches, the classic art and of course, the food of Italy.   
     Nancy and I had arrived in Rome after taking a red-eye from Vegas then hung out in the Newark airport for over twelve hours.  The following morning, after a restful sleep in a Marriott hotel, we met up with the other members of our group on the Spanish Steps.  Bogged with luggage, backpacks, hiking poles and the heaviest of hiking boots, Nancy and I were the last ones.  Late, not a good first impression. 

Someone was having too much fun shopping for her hiking gear. 
     After profusely apologizing we all clamored onto the travel bus, one far too large for the small narrow, twisting streets of Rome.  We were excited.  This trip was one focused on nature, spirit, art, history and food with, for Nancy and I, the added fold of promoting awareness for Alzheimer’s disease.  Knowing we were about to engage in three weeks of five to twelve mile hikes, daily, with elevations exceeding 1,500 feet (Mount Cucco) we figured worrying about calories, was soon to be a distant memory. 
     As Nancy and I reminisced about our trip, she asked me, which of the many meals we enjoyed, I considered the most memorable.   Without hesitation to Nancy’s question I brought up our very first meal in Italy.  The ravioli and spaghetti we enthusiastically ordered, looking forward to dining al fresco outside the Vatican. That, we agreed was our absolute worst meal!  We even sent the wine back!
Well, we were hungry, and we were in Rome, so we ate it anyway.  
 The next day’s meal was far better.  “You mean that antipasti plate we ate at the end of our first day in Orvieto?” Nancy asked.  “Definitely an artistic presentation of melon, prosciutto, crackers and cheeses, among the best I’ve ever tasted, but that wasn’t it,” I replied. 

  The home cooked meal we were so graciously served in the ancient stone abode of a generous and talented family consisted of wild boar stew, fried eggplant, pickled vegetables and perfectly seasoned pork is right up there.  But Nancy concurred, good as it was, that was not our most favourite. 

     While in Gubbio we dedicated ourselves to finding the ultimate in Gelato.  So for lunch, over a three day period, that was all we ate.  In my opinion, the pistachio was the best ever!  But I’m not sure we can count Gelato as one of our best meals.  Bucovina is where we toured a small and quaint but truly incredible, egg museum and where Nancy witnessed me eating not just one, not two, but three slices of pizza!  Was she ever impressed.  Authentic Italian pizza is far different from the cheese-stuffed crust, sauce-soggy, heavy-duty pizza we are accustomed to here in the States.  In Italy; so simple and so good.
Just a small sample of the incredible Egg Art from all over the world. 

I was thrilled eating pizza w/knife & fork is how it's done.
      A day or two later, I was in Chef Heaven as we made our way through a typical Italian grocery store.  The produce was a parade of robust and colourful fruits and vegetables.  And the eggs, not refrigerated, but stored at room temperature, and displayed as an end-cap.  The meats in the deli section were trimmed and sliced by the most professional and experienced butchers on the planet!  Slicing meats so fast and with such precision, I swore they were Italian Ninjas.  And no preservatives in the breads!  I could’ve stayed in that market the entire day.  But we gathered our supplies for our week-long stay at a hostel and made our way back to the van after only two hours. 

This is how it's done in the typical Italian market.  
   The following day, we made our way further north, where we consumed a lunch prepared and served to us by one of the best looking Italian men my eyes have ever feasted on.  This combination chef, restaurant owner, hunter, fisherman and husband (sad face) offered his guests freshly caught fish resting on a bed of freshly harvested greens.  The sensuous risotto was topped with shavings of freshly, hand-picked black truffles!  And we weren’t charged by the gram rather they were heartily applied as though they are part of everyone’s mid-day meal!  The abundance of those unctuous fungi resting on our bowls of steaming creamy rice was brightened with just a hint of lemon zest.  This meal is a close second due to the expertise of the hands that prepared it for and my zeal regarding the truffle hunting expedition we went on with that big, strong Italian and his faithful dog.
The dog hard at work sniffing out Black Truffles

The man with his back to us is my Italian Hero.
     Then there’s the day of the Cheri Festival.  Where, after mingling among the thousands of Italian families that participate or observe amid cheers, shouts and church bells we finally hit a wall of fatigue.  Many in our group were tired.  Nancy and I among them opted to stay in for the evening at our bungalow along with a few of our new friends.  Opening a bottle of wine I’d purchased while at the Festival we prepared our own meal of leftovers along with a few items purchased at the local market the day before.   Nancy stated she really enjoyed this make-shift feast, but wasn’t sure we could declare it our very best food experience in Italy.
Add caption
      During those three weeks we hiked, ate and drank, I’d say pretty much every meal exceeded my expectations and was sublime, except that first one in Rome.  But it was the afternoon we toured the small family run olive oil production facility where Nancy and I agree, we indulged in the very best meal of all.  That day, our morning was spent taking a small boat out to some huge national park and wild life refuge.  It was quite warm and a bit humid following several days of rain.  The hike, though flatter and more level than most we’d experienced during our travels, was dusty and lengthy.  After the boat ride back to shore, we continued our hike up streets much like those in San Francisco with just as many twists and turns.  Finally we staggered up a few more stone steps until we reached the olive oil distillery.  Here we learned the art of pressing and extracting olive oil.  We watched as the huge millstones pressed the olives into paste.  Then the paste was spread onto over-sized discs that are sprayed with water as they extract the oil.  There is so much more to the process but the video I took of the gentlemen who gave us the tour is completely in Italian.  Our translator was there, but you can barely hear her over the presses.
What did you say?  I can't hear you!
     After the tour of the machinery was complete we were guided back downstairs where the other family members had set up a veritable feast!  Lots of wine, of course, and an array of meats, cheeses and fruits that boggled the American mind.  Homemade breads sliced and set out for us to either prepare our own sandwiches or simply slather with what looked to me like home-churned butter.

Loved the San Diego shirt on the Italian.
      The star attraction of this meal was the Cannellini bean soup.  Simple and straight-forward in true Italian tradition.   Nothing on that long, wooden farm table was over-done or over-dressed.    You could actually taste the love this family put into everything they do, be it olive oil making, gardening or cooking.  I was not alone in my return trips to the table for seconds.  The soup consisted of creamy white beans with a few kidney beans stirred in.  Rosemary, with salt and pepper, cooked low and slow, created a depth of flavors I dare say have yet to be duplicated in any other bean soup I’ve tasted before or since.  For the finish, the soup was lightly drizzled with the olive oil produced upstairs. 
    Nancy, the others and I, gathered our paper plates and (real) glasses of wine (I love how they would never serve wine in plastic) and sought out make-shift seats on the stone steps we had moments before climbed.  No longer feeling hot, sweaty and weary, we were now energized by the sights and smells of our meal.  Every one of us was abuzz with hunger and by now well practiced in the Italian way of savoring our meals.  We ate and drank then ate and drank some more.  Two and a half hours later, we thanked our hosts, purchased a few bottles of their home-made olive oil and made our way back to the shuttle bus. 
   The balanced seasoning, the complementary flavors, salty, zesty and warm, this was by far, Nancy’s and my best meal in Italy!  

This simple dish was our absolute favourite!

CANNELLINI BEANS
(Also known as Navy Bean, White Kidney, Great Northern or Tuscan Beans)

With so few ingredients, those ones used must be of the very best quality.  So the best of dried or canned beans?  For dried; Rancho Gordo’s Classic Cassoulet Beans rank the highest.  Their dried beans leave many scratching their heads as to why these are so sub-par while their canned are among the most rich and flavorful.  For canned I recommend Goya Cannellini Beans.  Bush’s are close second, they also offering a rich, creamy yet firm bean.
If using dried beans be sure to pick through and toss out stones then soak overnight.  Canned, should be drained and rinsed. 

INGREDIENTS                                                                                                                   Serves 8-10
1 ½ Tblsp olive oil                                                               1 cup diced Spanish onion
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes                                                 6 cloves garlic – minced
1 bay leaf  (Turkish)                                                           ½ cup fresh sage, chopped                                                  
 4 cups chicken broth ( low sodium) + 3 cups water
2  16-oz. cans Cannellini beans(drained & rinsed) or 2 ½ cups dried beans (soaked)           
 1 can 8-oz. kidney beans (drained & rinsed) or 1 cup dried (soaked)
2 tsp white wine                                                                 salt/pepper to taste

PROCESS
Heat oil in large heavy pot or Dutch oven, over medium heat. 
Add chopped onion and cook until translucent and soft, about 3-5 minutes.
Still in red pepper flakes, garlic and bay leaf.
Stir in beans and broth, cook about 30 minutes. 
Add wine, ¼ cup of the chopped sage, continue cooking on simmer another 2-2 ½ hours or until beans are soft, but not mushy.
Remove from heat when ready. Season to taste with salt and pepper, uncovered. 
To serve; ladle cooked beans into individual bowls and garnish with remaining sage and a drizzle of oil.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Little Bit Of Lemon

     The lemons are coming, the lemons are coming!  That is the citrus-cultivators cry soon.  For those lucky enough to have harvests so excessive they may sound as though they’re complaining.   I envy them. And of course, always offer to take a bag or two off their hands for them. 
     I have in my back yard a lemon tree that provided me with this fresh, juicy fruit for the first two years of its life in an over-sized pot. 
But now nothing.  Actually for the past few years, nothing, in spite of my fertilizing, kind words and joyful singing.  While those lovely, fragrant blossoms do appear, they eventually fall to the ground and I am left with a tree of green, healthy leaves without a single lemon to cook down into a rich curd or to whip into a refreshing gelato.  Not even a single lemon with which I can zest or squeeze onto a bowl of garden vegetables with a drizzling of unsalted butter.  So I went out and purchased a new lemon tree.  Here I sit, fingers crossed and hopeful those pretty white flowers will soon transform themselves into bright yellow, ovals ready for culinary adventures.


     Though lemons originated in Southeast Asia, they are currently cultivated in temperate climates all over the world.  California is the largest producer of lemons in the U.S.  It’s true, we can purchase lemons year round, they are best during their natural season which runs from May to October.  History shows lemons have been used for all sorts of medicinal purposes.  Lemon juice serves as my favourite sore throat cure.  Freshly squeezed juice in a cup of hot water, sweetened with a teaspoon of honey and a good tablespoon of brandy.  “Ahhh” says my throat. Lemons were once considered a remedy for epilepsy. 
     And who hasn’t used lemon juice as “invisible ink” for writing secret messages to members of a tree-house or other exclusive club?  Lemons can serve as bleaching agents.  I know some people who add a bit of lemon juice to a tablespoon of baking soda and brush their teeth with this mixture.  Though, according to some commercials, lemon juice negatively impacts the enamel on our teeth.  Lemons and their close relatives have been used as an ingredient in magic and occult.  It is said, witches used lemon verbena, a citrusy herb, put it in a bag then placed the bag under the pillow of those who suffered from insomnia or poor sleep patterns. 
Lemon’s closest cousin, lemon grass, is an important flavor component in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines.  Easily recognizable in your produce section with its leggy, green-gray hued leaves and citrusy aromatics.  I’ve used those long, woody stalks as Popsicle sticks for some of my over-twenty-one popsicles.  Not only do they add visual interest to this otherwise common homemade summer treat, the lemon grass stalks infuse a pleasant high note to my “adult swim” frozen refreshers.


     But I digress from my focus on lemons.  If you are lucky enough to procure a prolific harvest or know someone who is generous enough to share with you I’d like to provide a simple recipe for making lemon curd.  This sun-bright, smooth, tangy concoction is expensive to purchase, so in my mind it doesn’t make “cents” to buy when you can make it yourself. 
     Use lemon curd on your waffles, in my June 2014 Blog story, I shared with you my recipe for Lemon Waffles.  In the photo you can see there is a delightful dollop of homemade lemon curd nestled next to a heaping spoonful of blueberry compote.  Lemon curd on toast or along-side your freshly baked, warm scones.  Lemon curd beautifully highlights crisp rounds of sweet meringue in my version of Pavlova.  Petite individual servings for each guest sitting around your table to enjoy and savor. 

Recipe for Lemon Curd by Deborah L Costella

Ingredients
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3-4 lemons)                          6 egg yolks

·         Save whites for an egg-white omelet or a frothy cocktail like a Pisco Sour, Clover Club Cocktail or a Lemon Lavender Gin Fizz * Think I’ll give you the recipe for that on my web site:www.cosmicmuffincafe.com since more lemons are involved!

1 cup super fine sugar (Bakers or Caster)                   zest of 4 lemons * Hint: zest first then squeeze out fresh juice
8 tablespoons unsalted butter – cut into cubes and held at room temperature



Process

Set a stainless bowl over a pot of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.

In the bowl, whisk egg yolks for about 1-2 minutes.   Slowly whisk in sugar, so as not to “burn” the yolks, then add lemon juice and zest.  Continue whisking until yolks thicken and form ribbons.  This will take 7-15 minutes.  Be sure to check the water level so that it hasn’t simmered off.  Add more water if needed.

Once yolk mixture has thickened, begin adding the cubes of butter one at a time, waiting until each cube has completely integrated before adding the next.

When all butter has been incorporated strain curd through a sieve or strainer into a clean bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap touches the curd, just as you do when you prepare homemade guacamole.  Store in fridge for at least 2 hours then use as desired.

To be honest, I like my curd served warm over vanilla scones on top of toasted English muffins in the morning.  So good.

The curd can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to 1 week.


Recipe for Individual Pavlovas by Deborah L Costella

Ingredients

1 ½ cups super fine sugar (Bakers or Caster)           2 teaspoons cornstarch - sifted
6 eggs whites (room temp)                                       pinch Kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste                                   1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Parchment paper                                                       1 pint of berries (your choice)                                               

Process                                                                              
                                                                                  Preheat oven to 300 degrees

Set sheets of parchment paper on 1 or 2 sheet pans (depends on the size you have at home)
Using a pencil, draw 3” circles, then flip parchment to other side so you can still see your template but no pencil will infuse into your meringues.  Set aside.


In a small mixing bowl combine sugar and cornstarch.  Set aside until ready to use.

In stand mixer or using a hand-held mixer in a large bowl, beat egg whites and salt together on high until soft peaks form.  Maintaining speed, add sugar/cornstarch mixture to egg whites, one tablespoon at a time, allowing about 1 minutes between additions.  Continue beating until stiff peaks form.


Turn off mixer, then gently fold in vanilla paste and lemon juice, being careful to not deflate whites.


Using a small spatula, spoon meringue onto parchment paper using penciled templates as your guide.  They don’t have to be perfect circles.  I like mine rather rough and rustic.  Use the back of a spoon to gently create a small indentation on each round of egg white.  This will provide you with a little concave spot to fill with your lemon curd and fresh berries.


Place baking sheets in oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until peaks are a soft golden brown.  Turn off oven, crack oven door open slightly, all allow meringues to cool for 1 hour.


Meringues will be crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside.  They are now ready to be spread with your homemade lemon curd and topped with the fresh berries. 



                                                                                                 Serves 10 - 12