Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cucumber Melon Granita!

And happy blog day... I was informed by my son that August 31st is Blog Day.  So why not post a dessert for its party?

Unlike the poor eggplant caviar,
Cucumber Melon Granita
But just as easy 
This is especially for all of you sweltering out there in the world.  (Also soothing for sore throats.)
I'm at home in 50˚F and overcast, but hey, love that variety (ooooh, here at midday we've hit 59˚).

For a nice cool treat - follow me!


2 cucumbers the size of bananas (or approximate that amount with what you've got)*
1/4 of a honeydew-type melon of normal size - (I had 2 teeny melons that were about halfway between the size of a baseball & a softball, or an average guy's fist)
4 Tbs white sugar (more or less)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbs clear, mostly flavorless liquor (I used some nice gin for faint herbal notes, use vodka if all you are looking for is the "antifreeze" properties).


Vegetable peeler
Cutting board
8x8 baking pan or similar size plastic container
Tablespoon measure


Cut the ends off the cucumbers, cut them in half (so you make them shorter), and peel them.  Cut them in half the other way (so they look like boats), and scoop the seeds out.  Chop them into pieces about as thick as your thumb, toss in the blender.

Scoop the seeds out of the center of your melons(s).  Scoop the flesh and juice off the rind, into the blender.  Your honeydew-type melon should be sinfully juicy and sweet when you do this.  It is a perfect way to use up that end of melon no one wants.

Add the lemon juice, and blend.  Add the sugar 1 Tbs at a time.  (If your melon was a bit crunchy you may need extra).  Add enough sugar so it tastes a little too sweet.
You'll need that little extra sweetness to a) counteract the deadening effect cold has on your tongue and b) to keep this from turning into an irretrievable green ice cube.

Add the Tbs of clear liquor and blend one more time.

Pour in your container, pop it in the freezer, and check at 45 minutes to see how fast it is freezing.  Stir the frozen parts in with the runny parts.  Check again in an hour or so.  Run a fork over the frozen stuff.  If it turns into the ice equivalent of cotton candy - you have granita!
From here you can let it freeze as solid as it will get, and just scrape what you want off with a fork.  If you want to store for longer, scrape it all into its fluffy state, and store in a container large enough to hold it all with a tight lid.  Then store and use like ice cream or sherbet or whatever.
If it turning into something suitable for ice carving, it needs more sugar.  Let it thaw back out, add a few more Tbs of sugar and try again.

Or just smash it up and add it as ice cubes to lemonade.  And try again later.

*Special Ingredient Alert!
Armenian Cucumbers or Snake Melons - actually a melon themselves, but taste like cucumber (the two are close cousins - so go figure.)
This pale green specimen is making inroads at farmers market - and what I used.  Never get the ones that are as big as your arm, they can be bitter and woody.  Stick to about banana sized or smaller.

The Armenian Cucumber or Snake Melon

Yeah - I interned borrowed this image... and so did everyone else.
Even Seeds of Change uses this one on their seed packets.
Sorry for forgetting to snap a pic of one in my kitchen.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Baba Ganoush - Eggplant Caviar

Baba Ganoush - One of those dishes, despite its absolutely amazing flavors, is, just no other way to put it, ugly.

When you roast an eggplant it in your oven you will smell this hard to pin down, exotic, smokey scent, and know you are on to something good.  
That smell is largely due to all those bitter plant alkaloids you usually drain out of eggplant with salt.  Here you get rid of them by burning them up and turning them into mysterious perfumes. 

So, despite it's drab appearance, bother with it all the same.

First, it is easy.
Second, it is so very good.
Third, it is even better the next day (flavors 'marrying' in the fridge and all that)
(And when you use the leftovers in place of mayonnaise on a sandwich it takes on "secret ingredient" status.)

Despite all aura of mystery and the myriad spellings (gannoush, gannudj, gannouj etc...).  It really comes down to roast a veggie in the oven, stir it with a few pantry items - TA DA!

There are plenty of versions that have you blackening it over a gas flame, grilling the whole eggplants, charring, whirring, dicing up a salad bowl of ingredients and hunting for specialty spices.

All good, and over time you can use these to make your signature baba ganoush.  But you should realize, at the root, baba gannoush has all the difficulty of stirring onion soup mix and fresh chives into sour cream and calling it "dip."  And yet it is so-oooooooooooo much more awesome.

For the very simplest version:


1 largeish purple globe eggplant (slightly bigger than the largest Starbucks drink or enough small ones to make up that size)
2 cloves garlic - crushed or minced fine
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
3 Tbs oil (a good time to break out some fancy olive oil)
juice of one lemon (1 or 2 Tbs to taste)
(Optional - 1 to 2 Tbs Tahini Paste - or to taste.  It adds a rich, creamy element, but is not essential.)


Shallow pan for the oven
Cutting board or large plate
2 forks
small-ish bowl (2+ cups)

Preheat your oven to 400˚F
Poke the fork into the eggplant(s) 4 - 8 times to prevent explosion.
Place just plain on your shallow pan.

No knives necessary.  Or oil or foil or....
Just poke a few times to prevent KA-BOOM! splut.
Bake for 30 - 45 min.  Turn at about 15 min if you think of it.
Keep cooking until a fork pokes all the way through and meets no resistance - down at the globe end.  The stem end sometimes remains tough.

On a cutting board or large plate use two forks to pull open the eggplant and scrape out the flesh.
Use the forks the shred the eggplant.*
If you find you didn't wait long enough, no tragedy, just pop them back in the oven (face up) for 10 or so more minutes, until they are soft through.

Eggplants have so much awesome horror-show to them.
The flesh part just scoops out easily when they are fully cooked -
and leave these odd sea-creature-y packages behind.

Combine the eggplant, lemon juice, oil, salt & garlic.  Make additions to your taste.  Serve with breads or crackers of all kinds.  Make a mezze platter with hummus, olives and other goodies.
Also goes well with lemony chicken dishes.

And it freezes nicely in zip top bags with the air removed... in case you are invaded by a wheelbarrow full of the purple fruits!

*Many modern recipes advise using a food processor, bit this tends to crush the seeds, releasing a bitter flavor.  Bleh! (Food mills are fine, but the flesh is so soft when the eggplant has been roasted enough, you don't really need mechanical help.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lamb Meat Pies

Best Leftovers EVER! – So Far.

These take some work – but freeze wonderfully – so make a double (or more) recipe, and have quick suppers or party food on hand.

Lamb Meat pies... & Yogurt Sauce
Equipment :
Cookie Sheet/½ Sheet pan
Rolling pin
4 – 5” circular cookie cutter
Large bowl
Dish towels (non-fuzzy)
Spoon (regular size)
Small sauté or sauce pan

optional - collander

Leftover roasted potatoes

Leftover Lamb stew  
(actually any hearty filling works… don’t be scared - 
the British go with corned beef and smashed potatoes)

2 Tbs flour
1 Tbs butter or oil

1 tsp yeast
1 tsp salt
3 Tbs sugar
1 C warm (105˚F) water + another ½ Cup

4 C AP flour + more for dusting
Non-stick cooking spray

Optional for yogurt sauce:
½ C plain yogurt
a large handful of thinly sliced cucumber
1 tsp salt
fresh herbs (mint, parsley, basil – any combination to your taste)
1 – 2 cloves crushed garlic
more salt to taste.

Mix yeast, salt, sugar & 1 C water.  Set aside until it is a little frothy.
Pour as much broth out of the stew as you can – at least a cup.  If it is more – great.  If less, make up to at least a cup with water or vegetable or chicken broth.
Chop the meat up into smallish pieces, add it and the roasted potatoes into your stew.

Optional yogurt sauce: thinly slice cucumber, sprinkle with the tsp of salt  - let sit for 10 – 30 min.
Rinse off the salt, lay the cucumber on one of the dishtowels.  Roll up and squeeze mercilessly.  It is now drained and ready for the yogurt sauce. (can be refrigerated for later at this stage)

 In a large bowl, stir the yeasty water into the flour.  Stir with a fork – or your hands.  Add a little more water until it starts to hold together in one dough ball.  Work on a floured counter – kneading to make a stiff dough (or use your mixer with a dough hook).  When it has all come together, divide into 2 balls, cover with a clean towel and set aside for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350˚F

Make a roux from the broth from the stew.  A roux, you ask, what’s that?*
In a small sauté pan over med high heat, add the flour, stir it gently to toast the flour lightly (it will start to smell a little like… toast), add the butter or oil, stir to coat all the flour particles.  Let the mixture froth for about a minute. 
While whisking the mixture, pour in your stew liquid, a dribble at a time, making sure to stir in each dribble.  
When all the liquid is stirred in, set aside, let it cool, and admire your roux.  Taste it, and see if it needs salt.  Correct any deficiencies. It will help make your meat pies extra delicious.

After you finish your roux, the dough is ready for the next step.
Roll out one dough ball to about 1/8” thickness (this is a workout) and cut out circles.  Lay them out on your baking sheet – do the same with the other ball.  Combine the scraps, and make a few more rounds (expect 12 – 16 circles).

Cover with a clean towel and let these rise for 15 more minutes.

Set up your meat pie assembly station:

The stew with the chopped meat + potatoes
Your tasty roux
Dough circles
A baking pan with non-stick spray (or a Silpat)

Layout your dough circles – place about 1 tsp of roux on the bottom, and a heaping tablespoon of stew in the center. 
Pinch together the circle half way up one side, then bring the other side up to make a triangle – or something that looks like a three cornered hat.  Squeeze the seams together leaving a little space for steam to escape at the top.

Place these on the baking pan – pop in the oven.  Cook for about 30 minutes – until they start to take on a lightly toasted appearance - if you are planning on serving right away.

If they are headed for the freezer, stop the cooking at 10 minutes, cool, freeze on a flat pan, and seal in a zip top bag or other airtight container when they are solid.

Reheat at 350˚F in a baking pan covered with foil for about 25 minutes – when they take on a light golden color, and the gravy is bubbling inside.

If you’d like the yogurt sauce, combine the yogurt, drained cucumbers, herbs, garlic and salt to your taste, and serve with the meat pies.

Excellent party food!  And from stew – who knew?

*Cajun cooking may have made roux famous – in its variety (white, brown, brick etc…) but roux comes from French cooking, the stodgy grandparent of Cajun Cuisine.  Really, it’s just a quick way to thicken or add body to any sauce.  Get the hang of this technique – and gravy at Thanksgiving will be something you can do with one hand tied behind your back.

Farmers Market Lamb & Mushroom Stew

My summer cooking motto continues to be – Farmer’s Markets make us all better cooks. 

Whatever you pick up at a farmers market will do their best to make you look like a super star.  This Mushroom-backed Lamb Stew is the perfect example of how fortuitous shopping and cooking up front can build you many meals into the future, and each one of them is luxurious in its tastiness. 

Last time it was lamb sausage - and so good I couldn't leave the lamb out this time.  But this recipe wouldn't have been anywhere near as roll-your-eyes-back-tasty without the mushrooms.

Pacific Crest Foraging
I got there late - note all the empty bins in back!
I'll have to get there earlier next time if I want fresh mushrooms.  

Summer Lamb Stew with a Mushroom Base and a Farmer’s Market Supporting Cast
(Lamb Meat Pies for leftovers follows)

It takes a while to cook…. but most of the time you get to ignore it.

Soup pot or Dutch oven – it MUST have a lid
Tongs (optional – but helpful)
Long Spoon for stirring soup
Spatula for sautéing onions & shifting potatoes
Cutting board
Plate/shallow pan
Bowl that can hold about 4 cups
Cookie sheet/ Half-sheet pan

fingerling potatoes
worth a little special treatment

1 lamb shoulder cut (approx. 2 lbs) (Our local lamb grower is is Martiny Livestock)
¼ C flour
a few tsp oil (nothing fancy)
1 bunch sweet carrots – cut roughly into small bite sized chunks
2 shallots – sliced thin
1 sweet onion - quartered and sliced thin
3 cloves garlic - crushed/chopped fine
1 Tbs tomato paste
1 pkg. Pacific Crest dried mushrooms (I loved the Wild Mix in here)
2 cups boiling water
¾ lb fingerling (or other waxy*) potatoes – cut roughly into small bite sized chunks
a few sprigs thyme
2 more tsp oil
salt & pepper as needed

Boil 2 cups of water, pour over the dried mushrooms.  Set aside until they are well hydrated.  Save the water!

Sprinkle salt and a little pepper all over the surface of your lamb shoulder.  Cut into 4 - 6  large pieces, of roughly equal size.  Trim off any tough membrane, and large chunks of fat.  Leave in the bones and interior pieces of fat.  Both of these add flavor you really want in your stew – bones can be removed before serving.
Spread the flour on a plate/shallow pan.  Dredge the lamb in the flour, so it has a light coating all over.

Use the necessary tools -
garlic press & a favorite knife are a big help

Cut up all the vegetables as needed.
 Toss the potatoes with a tsp of salt, the thyme and the 2 tsp of oil, and spread out on the half sheet pan.


Set your soup pot/dutch oven over medium-high heat with a drizzle of oil in the bottom.  Let this heat for a few minutes – until a piece of onion sizzles in the oil. 

Brown the lamb in the pot – let it sit still until the flour starts to brown – then turn.  Set aside on a plate.
Add another small drizzle of your oil, turn the heat down to medium, and drop in the shallots, half the sweet onion and all the garlic.  Add a half tsp. of salt, and stir.  Cook over medium heat until translucent and “sweaty” (moist and smelly).  Stir occasionally.   This will take awhile, so….

Remove the mushrooms from the water, squeeze well, and chop fine (about ¼” pieces or smaller).  Save the water!  Strain that through a strainer/paper towel/coffee filter to remove any grit.

When the shallots etc. are tender, stir in the tomato paste and a spoonful of the mushroom water – to loosen the mixture.  Cook this until the tomato paste darkens a little.

Stir in the mushrooms, and let the mixture thicken slightly.
Add the lamb back in, add the mushroom water, and maybe a little more water to just cover the lamb.  Lower the heat to med-low or where you need to to get the very lowest boil/simmer COVERED for 1.5 – 2 hours. (You can also place this in a preheated oven at 250˚F – 300˚F - check to see that the mixture is simmering)

While you are waiting on your lamb to stew – roast your potatoes (this can also be done while you reheat the stew, if you made it the day before.)
Preheat your oven to 425˚F
When the oven is hot, roast your potatoes for about 20 minutes (until they are delicious), be sure to shift/toss them at 10 minutes.

When they get a little crusty skin - yummy!
When the lamb seems almost done, add in the carrots and the rest of the sweet onion for the last 20 minutes.  Taste and add salt/pepper to make it just right.
(Remove bones if desired)

Serve over the roasted potatoes.
P.S. You can also cook the potatoes in the stew – just let them cook 15 minutes longer than the carrots.

Next up – Lamb Rissoles (fancy word for Meat Pie)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Day 9 - Part II - Don’t go out to dinner on a Friday on the Ginza...

Without a reservation –

Especially if all you speak is polite greetings, counting & Japanglish food.

Luckily, there are ways around this dilemma.
We fell back on eating at the hotel restaurant, which was quite fancy.  So we didn’t get the whole Ginza experience, but we did get our first shabu-shabu meal with wafer-thin slices of marbled beef, tiny, exquisite rolled appetizers, and the delicious broth to go with the noodles. 

And after our palatial Chinese room, our perfectly adequate room with clever lighting seemed almost cramped. 
Fortunately we had a heated toilet seat with a full suite of button-operated options.  Sadly no lights or music – that must have been extra.

(I didn’t get a picture, but was amazed to see this show up at our local Costco this summer).

adjustable nozzle, heated water, heated seat, warm air dryer,
soft closing, medically approved, germ resistant &
comes with a remote that comes with batteries.

Day 9 - Part I - Time to Change Countries

And it was easy.

I was a little sad we were missing the spring festival in Beijing – I mean Chinese New Year… in China!  But honestly, I knew I wouldn’t really have the energy to hunt out a good way to see it.

I was ready to pack up the tea, the kite, the books and maps and the little bags of souvenirs, and head off to our next adventure. 

I was able to bask in the mild reassurance that I had paid a good deal less for my souvenirs than the same thing at the airport.  Yay for small victories.

And airplane tea in Asia beats the pants off the muddy Lipton over here.  Something I was glad of by the Styrofoam cup full.

Arrival in Tokyo was rather straightforward as well.  And the limousine bus – well,  It was a quick splash-down into the new culture; the bowing as each bus arrived and left, the white gloves of all attendants, drivers and guides, the swept, gumless, spitless sidewalks we waited on, and the silent, spotless busses we boarded.

While the new Beijing we just left seemed a haphazardly built, one-and-a-half-sized giant land.

With smog...
  As we drove through suburbs, farms, highways and approached Tokyo (including passing Tokyo Disney! and the Eiffel Tower replica) I felt I was now in a world at three-quarters scale.  

Really - watch your head in the Subway

That was a feeling which never did quite leave.

Day 8 - Part II - The Mall

Yes, there are Malls in Beijing… and they look strangely familiar.  But the drugstores are quite different.

"...I'd have to go with that repository of human greed and debasement, the mall." - Daria
"Very good Daria, the mall is a beautiful illustration of all these economic principles.  In fact it would make for an excellent field trip." - Mrs. Bennet 

It was shiny, windowless, and full of designer labels – familiar & strange, and the prices were pretty darn close to US comparable.  Food court and everything!

No, Tavin, we are not getting mall sushi, not even Chinese mall sushi.  Or Burger King.  Or Dairy Queen.  I just can’t.

They had those small stalls in the middle with smaller merchants (much like the carts you find around here.)  Thank goodness, there I was able to find a few nifty things that were made in China, but didn’t look like the stuff already sent to the US of A!  And like in NY, London & Boston, (and Tokyo... I would discover in just a few days) plenty of access to the subway.

I figured this would be my best chance find find western style cough medicine.  No drug store here – yet there was, in the shiniest department anchor store.  Good thing, the Pharmacists spoke some English.  They chided me for my son having a runny nose (one even took a tissue out of her pocket, wiped his nose and looked at me – meaningfully).  And then looked confused (incredulous?) that I was in search of medicine for myself.

I weathered the cloud burst of disapproval and managed to get Robatussin.  I was very relieved.  Good news, it did stop me coughing at night.  Bad news, as long as I didn’t lie down.  This should have been a sign.  Denial is a powerful, powerful thing.

Oh and for a quick last glance at how cold it is all winter in Beijing – this is how to pimp your ride.

Notice the attractive packing-tape trim

*For those of you wondering why I didn’t explore traditional Chinese medicine.  Exhaustion and Cowardice.  I didn’t know where to start, and was rationing my energy to keep the trip on track, so lacked the energy to figure out how, who to ask, or where to follow up.  With a guide I most likely would have gone for it, but I also would have had to admit how sick I really was.  And that is where I was being a coward.

Day 8 - Part I - Shopping?

or attempting crass consumerism in Communist-ish China

Today was the day we were out for souvenirs. Tavin and I had planned to find a small souvenir for his class from both China and Japan.  So far nothing had jumped out at us, and partly that was because we were looking in the wrong places (What second grader wants tea?), and partly because the souvenir trade was a bit wan in places you’d expect it (Why are they selling toy cars in the reptile house at the Beijing Zoo?)
The last straw, of course, is that the tourist trade is at low ebb, so many of the places that would be selling souvenirs were now selling Spring Festival (Lunar New Year) decorations.
Lonely Planet directed us to Snack Street, a place to get the souvenirs you are expecting (you know, small cute things, made in China), and a shopping district in general.  We were still waking up early, so thought we’d head out and get the shopping done.  Turns out, that while Beijing for the locals opens at 8am, Beijing for tourists and the leisure/mall shoppers doesn’t get going until 9:30 or 10:00am!  So we were at the Snack Street markets while they were setting up, warming up, and generally feeding each other.  We did snag another yogurt, and they watched us suspiciously lest we wander away with their glass jars.  So other things were on offer… (Pix from Snack street)

While we were waiting for the action to start in the street market, the large bookstore across from the market opened for business.  It looked like a Chinese Barnes and Noble from the outside… and the inside.  Right down to the lowest floor having almost nothing to do with reading books – though here the major distraction was electronics.  On the 1st main floor lots; of popular reading (all the books had slick photos), though the bent was more towards non-fiction, finance and biographies (including on of Hillary Clinton).  Upper floors had an impressive textbook section as well.  I was able to poke my way around and find a few good children’s books to bring back to a Chinese Teacher who had helped me out a bit with my preparations.
With No Chinese, I could still hunt down an easy reader version of the story of the Monk with Piggy and Monkey who bring Buddhism to China.  That has everything to do with the universality of bookstore organization in this day and age – and pictures.

And back to Snack St, where at last things had opened up. 

A few tempting tidbits on offer.
Scorpion or Seahorse?
Fried Cicada?
Larvae or Hatched?

I caused a commotion by asking for 30 of 1 item (nifty little chinese opera masks).  I didn’t get a discount, but at least by NOT having my heart set on it, I was able to pay something I would get laughed at too hard later.

Oh, and the smog was up that day, and it was really getting to me – so I gave in and got us masks.  They do nothing for germs… just being cloth, and I’m sure they only give mild protection from the smog.  But they REALLY protect from the cold.  After days of cold dry air, it felt so good to have the air I was breathing warmed up.  I didn’t care if I looked like a poser.  I quit coughing so hard and so often.

It was cold...
I said it was Cold!