Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Little Bite of Summer

Summer is one of my favorite times of year as long as I'm somewhere hot and country like, and my grandparent's house in the Napa valley is the perfect place for a summertime atmosphere. I filled my lungs with sweet smelling air, rolled down the windows, dressed in summer rompers and sandals, and listened to my favorite bluegrass band. And I stayed in this state of utter summer bliss for an entire week. I was also especially lucky to have my two cousins to share adventures and laughter with. I left last Monday with a complete feeling of fulfillment and high spirits only found in such a perfect summer getaway.

It's hard to explain the sense of attachment I have to my grandparent's house. I still feel the same sense of wonder and excitement I felt as a child at that house whose garden provided my very own wonderland to be explored. During Easter me and my cousin decked in matching outfits would pretend we were fairys, announcing our elemental powers. We would dance around the garden, chasing dragonflies, making daisy chains, and jumping off the pick-nick table onto a tire swing hung from a huge moss laden tree (which is still there to this day).

These experiences have stayed with me and as I run from the main house to the smaller guest house, across the lawn surrounded with such an array of flowers cascading their long necks onto the edge of the grass, I feel as if I was a little girl again. I feel as if I was Alice in her wonderland garden, and I am able to replenish that child-like spirit that is so easy to lose as you grow older. 

But perhaps you are wondering what any of this has to do with food. Well, one of my favorite past-times while enjoying the summer weather is to bake delicious desserts such as puddings and pies and ice cream, which I did liberally during my last stay. The first weekend of our stay we were to celebrate my Grandpa's 80th birthday and my Grandmother's 75th birthday, so my mom and I together set about making three delicious pies. I was in charge of the Sour Cherry Pie, which was a wild success, as well as a large Dutch Apple Pie which was savored over the entire weekend. My mom baked an apricot pie in the style of her ever-popular pear pie which has a sort of yummy custard froth that is poured over the pears and baked creating the most decedent smelling and tasting pie. If you are interested in any of these recipes, the Sour Cherry Pie can be found in the Williams-Sonoma's American cookbook which also has a very delicious recipe for chocolate-chip cookies. You can find the Apple Pie recipe in the Joy of Cooking; use the apple pie recipe except for the part about the second crust top and instead use Strudel 1 recipe for the topping.

After the big celebration, early in the week my cousin, sister, mother, grandmother, and I had the random inclination to drive up this very regal looking driveway on the way back from a hike and to our surprise, there sat a very large castle winery called Castello di Amorosa which we had no idea was there previously. Even my grandmother who had lived in the Napa Valley for some long years, had never known it was there. We also realized, being guiltily of watching the Bachelorette show on T.V., that this castle was also where one of the final episodes of last season had taken place. Full of curiosity we decided to return the next day in our summer dresses to take pictures and to explore the castle.

 The next day we paid the entrance fee which also including a free wine tasting and juice for minors. We toured the beautiful castle which we all remarked, made us feel like we were in Italy. When we were through walking around the castle turrets, the large fully-painted dining hall, and the various other rooms we were allowed to walk through, we made our way down to the wine tasting room. There was also a large selection of objects and books and colorful pasta to buy which I had fun looking through. And as I was looking through the cookbooks with my cousin and sister, I came across a very appealing looking cookbook entitled Farmers' Market Desserts by Jennie Schacht. I opened to a random page to find the most decadent dessert staring up at me: Orange Cupcakes with White Chocolate-orange Butter cream. I flipped to another page and it read: Roasted Pumpkin Pie in a Maple-Pecan Crust. Page after page were filled with such yummy and outrageous sounding desserts that I just had to purchase the book, which I did.

On the way back to my grandparents, my cousin and I crooned over even the strangest sounding concoctions and planned the next few days of dessert adventures. First up, we decided to create the very daring recipe: Avocado Velvet, a kind of avocado pudding with syrupy blueberries and whipped cream on top. We were slightly speculative of the taste but we decided to go for it. We followed the directions precisely, processing the avocado with sugar, lime, salt, and cream into a smooth, thick pudding. We made the simple syrup and tossed sprigs of mint and blueberries into it. Served in little bowls, we handed out the concoction tentatively and dipped our spoons in with hesitation only to be greeted with the most delicious combination of flavors. While the pudding itself was not exactly the most appealing tasting pudding alone, the blueberries and syrup and whipped cream made the pudding come alive and become something so utterly decadent. It was a very pleasant and fresh surprise. My grandmother was the most pleased, being a huge avocado lover herself.

The next day we took on our next challenge, Grilled-Fig Sundaes with Balsamic "Fudge". In the morning I made the Balsamic "Fudge" which essentially is a balsamic reduction with dry red wine and sugar added which a sweet and tangy sauce. Later, we picked rosemary sprigs from the garden and stripping the needles away, created skewers which we passed through the backside of halved figs sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper. We then proceeded to create our own french vanilla ice cream which turned out extremely well, although there was hardly enough to go around. Next we grilled the figs on the grill and served them next to the ice cream, the balsamic fudge drizzled on top. We served the interesting array with more confidence this time and were again, blown away by the flavors presented in the presentation. The sweetness of the figs and the ice cream balanced with the tangy balsamic was an unbelievable combination, a delightful mix of sweet and savory flavors.

This cookbook exceeded my expectations and I can't wait to try many many more of the recipes presented here. For now, I will share with you the recipe for the Avocado Velvet:

Avacado Velvet 
from the Farmers' Market Desserts cookbook by Jennie Schacht

Recipe makes about 4 servings

You will need:
-1 pound (about 2 large) firm-ripe avocados
-6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
-2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
-1/8 teaspoon salt
-1 cup half-n-half, very cold
-2 Tablespoons water
-1 spring mint, about 3 inched long, plus extra leaves for garnish
-lightly sweetened whipped cream

The Velvet:
1. Remove the skin, the pit, and any brown spots from the avocado flesh and measure about about 1 cup packed avocado. Add the avocado, 3 Tablespoons of the sugar, the lime juice, and the salt into a food processor and blend until very smooth and thick. Add the half-n-half and blend completely until very pudding-like. Taste and add more sugar if you would like. Refrigerate the mixture for 2 hours or up to a day.

The Bluberries:
2. Add the water and the remaining 2 Tablespoons of sugar into a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Add the mint and 3/4 of the blueberries and toss until the syrup completely covers the berries. Store in an air-tight container at room temp. for up to an hour or in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Together at last:
3. Stir the remaining blueberries into the cold pudding. Remove the mint spring from the sugared blueberries. Serve the velvet into four small bowls, add a dollop of whipped cream to each, divide the syrupy blueberries between the bowls, and garnish with a fresh mint leaf, whole or cut into ribbons.

Serve and Enjoy!!

Who would ever think that avocado and blueberries would work so well together!

Happy Cooking!

-Kristin

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Miami is Rotund.

All I can say is, Miami Beach is rotund. Everything seemed overpriced, over-sized and unbearably hot. I took this week long trip towards the beginning of June when the brunt of the heat hadn't even hit yet. Walking from the cool air-conditioned airport across the threshold and into the 95 degree weather was a slap in the face. Not that I didn't get used to it after awhile, but I was very aware of my pale, freckle-y redheaded self in that summer heat and trying not to get burned became my main goal.

We were starving once we finally got to our very mod decor hotel, the Sagamore. It was very fitting for my artsy-aware family. Decorated in mostly white colored furniture, walls, ceilings, and floors, and plenty of black and white photography, it was accented with black accent pillows and splashes of color here and there that drew your eye to them. This including a photograph of the Sagamore's pool filled corner-to-corner with naked women floating face down forming a kind of pool cover, their butts lined up for all to see.

So as I said we were starving by this point, although it was around 4:00, a very awkward time between lunch and dinner. So we decided to stroll along the beach until we hit a strip of restaurants that my mom remembered to be there, and to stop and have some appetizers at one of them. What was a strip of restaurants turned out to be a bunch of haggling door people, yelling at you to come to their restaurant which I hate because all you want to do is rush past them, keeping your eyes averted. We ended up sitting down in one of these restaurants (which we tried to pick out later as we were driving along this strip, but couldn't because they all look the same) and were promptly informed it was happy hour with two for one drinks.

So we all ordered a drink to sip on while we waited for our appetizers which I can't even remember now except that one was a small pizza. What we didn't know was that the drinks were going to be our appetizers. I don't even know how they all fit on one tray they were so huge. If you were to imagine a large soup (family sized) from a Chinese restaurant and then balance that bowl on a 5 inch glass pole, that's how these drinks looked. They were margarita glasses for small giants. You can picture how big our eyes got as these were set down, one in front of each of us. The funny part is they weren't even that good. We also didn't know how overpriced each of these drinks were going to be. Let's just say that our bill was the same price as a semi-nice restaurant's bill would have been for four people. You can imagine how thankful my family was to me for making them take the cheap commuter bus over to Miami Beach other than an expensive cab ride.

So long story short, Miami proved itself to be a little over the top. Most of our meals, although we didn't make the mistake again to walk into a restaurant like that, were less than excellent and charged high. We did manage to go to a very authentic Cuban restaurant which was affordable and really good, but gave most of my family a hard time for the next day or so, if you know what I mean. I however, have always said I have a stomach of steel and can take most food-oriented beatings.

There was one night however, that stood far among the rest. D. Rodriquez Cuba at the Astor Hotel was recommended by our concierge for it's fun music on thursday evenings. So we dressed up a little in preparation for a good time and took a short cab ride over to the hotel where the restaurant would be. Upon sitting down in the very wonderful outside space decorated with metal and glass lanterns and candles, we were graced with amazing service, the best service, I think I have ever gotten at a restaurant. And. The. FOOD! It was so wonderful on so many levels. Not only were the combination of flavors unusually creative and an adventure for the taste buds, but the presentation and portions and everything were so perfect and appealing. While their prices range from about $8 for appetizers and $29 for their most expensive seafood dish, the food was extremely worth it. Oh and if you're planning on going for any reason, try the Yerba Mate Soda they serve called Materva. It's very refreshing, not to mention fresh. You can view their menu, which I think is updated quite frequently at: http://www.drodriguezcuba.com/menu

So I have decided, apart from that one restaurant, Miami Beach is rotund and overpriced and over-everything and I am over it.

Happy Eating!!

-Kristin

Home at last but not for long.

So while I didn't commit to any "blogging schedule", I believe I am atrociously behind and have even disappointed myself. It partly has to do with the fact that now that I'm on summer break, I have less creative ideas as my mom takes over a lot of the cooking and I recreate, on her request, many of the recipes I've already described here. It's also partly that I've convinced myself that I can only write about my own cooking ventures, which is a little bit limiting since I have been on more trips away from home than home itself.

So I've decided to expand my horizons and not only talk about the food I've personally cooked, but the food that others have bestowed upon me which leads me to talk about all of the random trips I have been taking lately. 

So the next few blogs may all be written on the same day, but in reality cover the entirety of about a month.