Remember that Barcelona trip I took back in April? There were honestly so many amazing things about it that I’ve struggled to put them all into words, but considering I’m teaching a class about part of the trip in two weeks, I figured now was a good time to share at least one story!
For the first vacation I’ve taken completely on my own, I left most of my time open for wandering, but I wanted a few things planned to give me a little direction. That’s how I spent three hours learning to cook paella from an amazing teacher in her home with a dozen other eager (and hungry) fellow students from all over the world. It was by far one of the best parts of the trip and one I would do again in a heartbeat. Continue reading →
Of the many things I love about my weekly farmers market trips, discovering new ingredients to play with might be the best of them all. Those discoveries led to my not-so-slight obsession with damson plums; my incessant crunching on a vegetable that most resembles something from a 1950s outer space comic book, kohlrabi; and the displacement of arugula as my favorite not-lettuce salad green by the lemon-y, spinach-y flavor of sorrel (which now also tops my list to plant in my garden in spring). One of the best discoveries so far this year, though, was a basket of these beautiful, and beautifully fragrant, flowers. Forget damsons, this year’s obsession? Elderflowers.
Elderflowers are the flowers used to flavor one of my favorite liqueurs, St.Germain. (The guy selling them kept telling me and a fellow curious buyer that’s its most commonly used to make a delicious and healthy tea. Personally, I like the liquor idea better.) Five quarts of flowers and a few half-gallon jars later, I had myself some projects.
If you, like me, are unfamiliar with elderflowers…you’re actually probably more familiar than you think. At least around Chicago, elderberry bushes are surprisingly common decorative shrubs. They’re what end up staining the sidewalks (and, more often than not, my car) dark purple from dropped berries come mid-summer. But before the berries, flowers. Incredibly sweet-smelling, almost cloyingly so, delicate sprays of creamy white flowers.
A little bit of Googling led me to two ideas that seemed like good places to start: elderflower simple syrup and elderflower-infused vodka (essentially the starting point for making my own elderflower liqueur). Some citrus in the form of lemon and grapefruit (and a little extra citric acid for good measure), a pretty pink variation with some extra juicy strawberries, and I’m pretty much set for all my homemade soda and fancy cocktail needs this summer (and fall, winter, and next spring).
The syrup is dead simple and utterly delicious. The grapefruit and lemon add a little bit of tart to balance out the could-be-too-flowery flavor of the steeped blossoms, but the flavor is bright, sweet summer all the way. The booze is still brewing, but, after I strain the flowers and add a good amount of sugar this week, I anticipate lazily watching more than a few summer sunsets under its influence. (And if you have any flowers left that you simply can’t cram into any other projects, elderflowers make very pretty ice cubes to fancy up your porch drinking.)
Usually when I share a recipe, I try to photograph important steps along the way or some part of the process that strikes me as particularly pretty. Trust me when I say this is the only picture of this recipe you need:
If you’re looking for the summer equivalent of fall and winter’s roast chicken, like smoked things, and have some beer hanging around, make this. This was one of those random dinner experiments that turned out miles beyond what I had hoped for. I was trying to make beer-can chicken, but my grill lid isn’t high enough to have the chicken stand up, so…I took the beer out of the can and put it under the chicken instead. And figured, what the heck, soak some wood chips in the beer while I’m at it. It looked gorgeous and tasted even better. I may have snuck a wing off this guy while I waited for my asparagus to grill.
I’ve made this with two different spice mixtures (a BBQ rub and a jerk spice rub) and two different kinds of beer (honestly just ones that have been kicking around my kitchen for far long–yes, I’m also that mythical person who has leftover wine). I’m planning to try this with cider next time and a spice blend like baharat or zatar. There are pretty much infinite variations and it can be as simple or as adventurous as you like. For a simple summer dinner (and great leftovers) with minimal prep, though, this cannot be beat.
Now that the flowers of my chives are put to work, on to more immediate gratification–biscuits.
I will eat biscuits (really, bread in any form) with anything and love them flavored with everything. For my overload of chives, I finely chopped a good handful of the chives I cut back along with two big handfuls of grated cheddar cheese and a few of the chive flowers for good measure, the hard blossom end plucked off and the flower sprinkled in. They were spectacular, perfect under a layer of spinach and an over-easy egg.
With all the herbs I’ve planted, herb biscuits are going to be a great option to stash in the freezer for any future biscuit emergencies (…don’t look at me like that, that’s a real thing). I plan on doing at least one sweet biscuit with the lemon verbena (doesn’t that sound good as the base for a strawberry shortcake?) and another cheesy variation with the thyme (gruyere, perhaps?). Rosemary and black pepper biscuits would be amazing along side lemon chicken.
I’m going to be ruthless with my garden this year. One of my biggest mistakes last year was hesitating to cut back and thin out a lot of what I planted. It felt so heartless to pluck out perfectly good little lettuces (they just want to live up to their full lettuce-y potential!) or hack off the better part of my basil plant. What I’m learning is that both thinning out and cutting back is better for my plants in the long run–the plants I leave get bigger, cutting them back encourages more growth.
All that is why that big bushy chive plant from three weeks ago got a major haircut and is now about 5 inches tall. It’s also why I have a jar of chive flower vinegar on my counter rapidly turning a spectacular shade of magenta and a double batch of chive biscuits in my freezer (more on those next week).
Vinegar will definitely be one of my go-tos for my extra herbs this summer. I’ve certainly planted enough, both in pots on my porch and in my garden, to keep pretty much everyone I know well stocked and still have enough left over to play with. I’ve got chives (of course), garlic chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint.
Infused vinegar is about as easy as it gets. Use white vinegar in the giant industrial bottle or go fancy with white wine or champagne vinegar. Light colored vinegars are my favorite purely for aesthetics, but you can infuse red wine, apple cider, or even balsamic vinegar (finally a use for the white balsamic I keep buying from Trader Joe’s and never, ever use). Use one herb or a combination; I’m interested in making infused vinegars with basil, lemon verbena, and the mints for some great vinaigrettes this summer.
Throw a few mashed berries, zest, or peppers in the mix (strawberry basil vinegar? cilantro, lime zest, and jalapeno infused vinegar added to salsa or guacamole?). The big trick is patience–you have to let it sit at least two weeks before the vinegar really well-flavored.
And when I still have more herbs to use (as I know I will), chopping them up, mixing with a little bit of olive oil and freezing in ice-cube trays will be an easy way to keep them handy all year. In the meantime, I’ll try not to keep holding this up to the window to see how pretty it looks.
Chicago can’t quite seem to commit to warm weather–we had four days of 80s and sun (perfect for working outside all last weekend at the plant sale and getting a little done in my garden), then, as soon as I get my tomatoes in the ground, down to 40s. Thankfully this weekend is supposed to be solidly beautiful, perfect for grilling, gardening, and generally being outside and eating all the almost-summer foods.
With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking about making during the long weekend.
With rhubarb season in full swing and strawberries close behind, it was a good opportunity tonight to clean out my freezer of some of both that I haven’t gotten around to using. Easiest thing? Rhubarb-strawberry syrup. A bag each of frozen rhubarb and strawberries, enough water to cover, a few cups of sugar, zest of a lemon, simmer about 20 minutes or until it tastes good. Take off the heat and add the juice of a lemon, refrigerate. I love it with seltzer (and maybe a splash of triple sec).
I loved this grilled chicken I made last summer, and it would go perfectly with grilled asparagus tossed with green garlic and thinly sliced French radishes, a beautiful salad, a glass of wine, and some friends on my porch. Yum.
As for any leftover chicken? A batch of this pesto on a warm flatbread or spread on a toasty pita with some of the lemony grilled chicken tucked inside sounds like a perfect lunch after I finish planting my garden with tomatoes and basil and some new herbs.
And because this is the start of pie season for me, rhubarb pie is a must. I made this to celebrate my first “blogiversary” because it represented so clearly what I wanted from this blog–a new skill learned or perfected (pie crust), a new favorite ingredient discovered (rhubarb) and a recipe to bring them together. And hey, May 21 also marks happy 3 years blogging to me!
What dessert or sweet treat defines Paris? The internet is littered with lists, debates rage, and more often than not, the macaron is crowned king (or queen, perhaps not an enviable role given Paris’ history). I would argue the madeleine, quietly observing from the wings, deserves its moment to shine.
Delicious and beautiful and delicate as they are, macarons are also known for their fussiness and fanciness; they have a notorious reputation for tempermentality should you take on the challenge of making them yourself. Madeleines are confident in their simplicity, needing nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar or basic sugar glaze.
Madeleines, like Paris, have a bit of je ne sais quoi about them, just enough to make things interesting, but not intimidating if approached with the right attitude. Madeleines are, in fact, very approachable and not particularly complicated–you probably have every ingredient in your cupboard or fridge.
But they require a bit of dedication and a dedicated pan (madelelines are not madeleines if they’re baked in cupcake tins), a little patience, and some home-cook magic to create their iconic little bump. Madeleines also will not wait for you; once baked, their window of perfection is short, and it’s really best to cede to their schedule for the best experience–you’ll really be glad you did.
The buttery, lemony, sweet little cakes themselves are pillow-soft but sturdy enough to stand up to a dunk in a cup of tea (memorably so, if Marcel Proust is any authority). If you look at a macaron sideways, its delicate shell might crack and crumble. The madeleines traditional shell shape is their one nod to decoration, but even that is relatively simple by necessity–too intricate and the detail is lost or they stick to the pan.
On the other hand, maybe the madeleine is best left out of the spotlight to be enjoyed by those who know what to look for. Maybe it doesn’t need a chain of ultra-high-end stores, fancy boxes, or a cult following, but just a pretty little plate and a pot of tea at a beat-up wooden table surrounded by friends and good conversation. Sounds like perfection to me.
And simply because no discussion of the madeleine would be complete without it:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
On the spectrum of grills and grilling, this is how I view things:
Charcoal grill > Any grill > No grill
A few years ago, I moved into my first apartment with a porch and my first must-do was learn how to grill. Happily, I got a little cast iron Lodge hibachi grill as a housewarming gift (you know what’s really smart? giving a person who likes to cook stuff to cook with because they will often use it to cook for you).
For four years, I used the hell out of that thing. It’s just the right size to cook for one or two people, but I easily had enough space to grill a whole pizza or a few burgers when I needed to. It was fast to heat up, holds just enough charcoal for one meal (with enough left over to melt a few marshmallows), and took briquette (the kind most grocery stores sell in summer) and lump (the kind that looks like chunks of burnt wood) charcoal. I can guarantee there were weeks in summer I did not touch my stove in favor of cooking on my porch (yes, breakfast too–do you know how good grilled bacon is?).
As much as I love that grill, it has a few drawbacks. The lack of a lid is the biggest one, making it a challenge to cook larger pieces of meat for longer periods of time. Foil or a pot lid worked to melt cheese on a burger, but not so well for cooking, say, a whole chicken, or smoking anything. A little Weber or tabletop/tailgating grill would have solved this, but I really like how the cast iron maintained heat. That’s why my housewarming gift to myself with my new place (after I made sure there were no rules about grilling, and yes, being able to grill was one of my “must-haves” when I was looking to buy) was a small ceramic grill, a Kamado Joe Jr.
I love my new baby for a lot of reasons but it came with a bit of a learning curve. The biggest selling point for me: it’s easy to get temperatures really low (180º F), really high (900º F), and everything in between and hold that temperature steady for a very long time–the whole thing is essentially a brick oven with grill grates. The lid and the steady temperatures also mean I can cook larger things like chicken; smoke salmon, or even bake (some people get excited about a pulled pork on the grill, I’m excited about baking cobbler. Ok, and the pork too.).
Compared to my cast iron grill, the ceramic needs a little more attention and takes a little longer to get the hang of. It’s slower to heat up than my cast iron, and only uses lump charcoal. Also, with the cast iron I could see my food as it cooked and so was quicker to figure out how much charcoal to use, how to set my hot and cool spots, when to turn or otherwise fuss with the food. With the ceramic, the cooking is mostly hidden under the lid, so I’ve had to learn a bit more by trial and error (and a few overdone burgers). But as I figure it out, I realize how much I will be able do–baking pizzas at near-professional pizza-oven temperatures and smoking my own bacon, for instance.
The difference between my two grills is essentially the difference between having a stovetop and having a full stove with an oven. I can cook nearly everything with just the first, but having the flexibility of the second gives me so many more options that it’s worth dealing with the learning curve.
If I had a porch big enough to have both grills out at the same time, I would, but for now I’m defaulting to my ceramic. My next place though…both grills.
First, a note–before I made this, Chicago was well on its way to spring. It was 70 degrees, my winter coats and gloves and scarves were all put away. The day this went in the oven? Four inches of snow. I don’t know if that’s an endorsement or indictment. You’ve been warned.
There’s a particular kind of meal best served out of the dish it was made in, at a table crowded with full wine glasses, ready plates, and even more ready appetites. The kind of meal that lends itself to lingering at the table long after the food is gone, though the glasses never seem to run empty.
After my trip to Paris last fall, I’ve (hardly unexpectedly) been on a French food kick and all winter, the one dish I’ve been craving, but never quite got around to making until last week, is about as French as it gets and, I think, perfectly speaks to that kind of meal–cassoulet.
If you’re not familiar with cassoulet, it’s a rib-sticking, richer-than-stew but not-really-a-casserole dish of white beans, chicken or duck, sausage, salt pork, broth, and a ton of garlic. Every person who makes it has their own recipe–which is of course the “right” way (the right way usually coinciding with the way they had it growing up–though in cassoulet’s case, it actually has a whole academie).
The dish has an intimidating reputation, even to me–see above re. L’académie Universelle du Cassoulet. There’s the duck confit (which many recipes include instructions to make yourself), a very specific type of bean, the multi-day cooking time, etc., etc. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. I’m not advocating for a microwave version (I probably made a Frenchman roll over in his grave just by typing that), but, as with any dish borne out of using what you have and stretching it to serve a crowd, it can be–and was!–simple (and, if not exactly fast, at least doesn’t require a lot of standing-at-the-stove time).
I’ve had this recipe kicking around since October, but my favorite part isn’t the recipe itself (though it’s what I used and what I modified below), it’s the article that precedes it. It addresses perfectly the intimidation factor and how to make this the way I imagine it was made at the beginning–with ingredients you have or can pretty easily get, allowing for adjustments as needed, and to your own tastes. And pretty much however you make it, it will be amazing.
To unintentionally prove a point, I actually screwed up when I made this. In hindsight, I should have added more water while it was cooking, there should have been a bit more broth-yness to the beans by the time it was done. Ideally the crust forms from the liquid, not the beans or chicken. Not a problem–it was still delicious (and totally devoured and I basically had to stop myself from picking off all the crispy chicken skin bits) and I will make adjustments next time.
Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.
There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.
Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.
I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.
Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?
There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”
My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.