Soul Food

Nothing speaks to me on a primal level more than a dense, tangy loaf of crusty bread; it’s appealing, satisfying and comforting, a tangible link with the past when bread had revered status, and it wasn’t about the carbs. I am completely in awe of the talent and dedication involved in creating a well crafted loaf. Upon reviewing the possibilities of producing a fool proof first-rate version at home from whiskful.blogspot.com I was instantly intrigued: billed as an ‘artisan no-knead bread baked in a dutch oven’.

Thanks to its originator, Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan, this formula is approachable for the most novice baker. The dough requires a pittance of ¼ tsp. yeast with a first rise at room temperature taking up to 18 hours; this slow process produces an active highly fermented biga of sorts. Baking the dough in a heavy covered pot (a dutch oven) produces the moisture necessary for a dense crust and intense crumb.

Call it providence, about this time my sister-in-law steps forward bearing an unwanted dutch oven – with no inducement on my part! My mind is already processing the necessary time requirements for the ‘artisan no-knead bread baked in a dutch oven’. I start my dough before dinner; it takes minutes to whip up and set it aside for its overnight rise. By mid morning the dough is light, the surface dappled with bubbles. Since this is a wet, somewhat awkward dough, a dough scraper helps to gently move it about. A couple more flip-roll-and-rest sessions and by late morning my bread is in the oven sending off a marvelous, yeasty perfume. I can hardly bear not lifting the lid for a quick peek but resist. Finally, it’s baked and cool enough for lunch. Well, actually, it was lunch.

Note to self: Plan ahead.
I’ve made this loaf several times now, using different flour combinations, adding seeds, nuts, herbs and various flavorings to satisfy my mood or complement a meal. With my recent glut of garlic whistles, this week’s solution was obvious: French Onion-Garlic Bread, pungent with green garlic and Parmesan cheese and topped with caramelized onion and more cheese – truly outstanding. In lieu of garlic whistles, substitute sautéed garlic slivers.

French Onion-Garlic Artisan Bread
Inspired by Manhattan Sullivan Street Bakery
3 cups flour
1/4 tsp active yeast, or quick rise
1 3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 cups water
olive oil for coating
extra flour, cornmeal, or wheat bran, etc for dusting

Filling Additions: 1 Tbsp olive oil, 2 Tbsp chopped garlic whistles or fresh garlic slivers, 3 Tbsp. chives, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese,grated
Topping Additions: 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 sweet onion sliced in half through center and cut into strips, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
Tools: 1 or 2 bowls, wooden spoon, scraper, large cotton towel, 2 3/4 qt. dutch oven

Ahead prepare any additions to bread: saute 2 Tbsp chopped garlic whistles or garlic slivers in olive oil to soften.
For bread dough: In a medium bowl combine all of the dry ingredients, including dough additions of garlic, chives and cheese. Using spatula add water and stir for 30 – 60 seconds to incorporate and form a loose wet dough, it will be sticky and shaggy.

Lightly coat the inside of a second medium bowl with olive oil, place dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let dough rest at room temperature (70 degrees) for 12-18 hours,until light and bubbles form on surface.

On lightly floured surface, gently turn out dough sprinkling lightly with flour and fold once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest 15 minutes on the work surface, or in a bowl.
Next, shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour, cornmeal, or bran; place dough seam side down onto the towel and dust again. Cover the dough with the towel and let rise 1-2 hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size.

At least 30 minutes before dough is ready, put cast-iron pot (or stoneware) in oven; preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove pot from oven when it has been heated. Carefully slide hand under towel and flip dough over and into hot pot; it will look messy. Cover with lid, bake 30 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare Caramelized Onion Topping: in medium saute pan heat oil and onion, saute over medium heat about 20 minutes until onion begin to turn golden. Allow to cool.
After bread has baked 30 minutes, remove from oven, sprinkle top evenly with caramelized onion and grated Parmesan cheese. Return to oven and reduce heat by 25 degrees, bake uncovered until loaf is browned, 15 – 30 minutes more. Remove pot to wire rack to cool briefly; carefully turn bread out of pot to cool on rack. . Makes one 1 1/2 pound loaf. ~~

Fava Beans and Garlic Whistles…

Back in the land of milk and honey, last Saturday I ventured downtown to the very established Eugene Saturday Market. After struggling with the sadly under performing downtown farmers market in Greenville, SC my spirits soared with this robust, ebullient, slightly off tilt extravaganza in full glide.

There was chatter among the vendors, some thought it a little slow for this time of year. Were the nearby Olympic Trials creating competition instead of a draw? From my starving perspective there were plenty of folks milling about, shopping, chatting up the eclectic artisans and vendors promoting their tie-dyes, pottery, astrological advise and such. The food booths were surrounded by swarms of hungry diners and undecided debaters, others simply gawk and support nearby impromptu musicians.

The real sensory overload for me was across the street on yet another block showcasing a bustling assortment of local farmers, nurserymen, bakers and related merchants. To this point, I have maintained some level of composure, but fully loose it here! Healthy, charming plants I’ve never seen before are provided with personalized handling instructions; abundant displays of handcrafted breads and fresh baked sweets are intertwined with artisan honeys, jams and preserves; a procession of booths brimming with pristine organic produce: multi-colored radishes, fresh berries, cherries of every type, kales, lettuces…

At one booth, Jessie stops mounding green beans long enough to tell me about their latest crop of fava beans – something I’ve always wanted to try. Shell them like peas she explains, they are so young and tender they haven’t yet grown the tough outer skin that can form around more mature beans.

Next to the fava beans are tidy bunches of thin green, snaky looking things Jessie calls Garlic Whistles. I love it! Alice Waters also refers to them as Green Garlic, they are the tender stalks of the garlic plant plucked before the bulb forms.  Into my politically correct market bag they go!

Much later… I stand transfixed in my kitchen staring down at my morning haul.  When I was little I could not abide lima beans – my mom’s version were were flavorless, dry, and chokingly inedible. As I begin the tedious shelling process my biggest nightmare sets in:  these guys remind me of those dreaded lima beans.

Nevertheless, with ultimate faith in Alice Waters’ judgement and Jesse’s encouragement I cautiously press on. I cook them only long enough to soften them, al dente perhaps, but not bleach out their vibrant green.

Whoa!  Delicious and creamy, with a slight bit of texture from the skin – their subtle flavor reminds me of roasted chestnuts. So simple, so complete, the crunchiness of the mild garlic whistles, the fresh herbs and the pasta all soar in a triumphant symphony. Unfounded fear, thank you, Alice.

Fava Beans and Pasta
Adapted from Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook by Alice Waters
1 lb pasta, garganelli, penne, or a shell of some sort
salt
3 cups fava beans, young and tender; 2 lbs in shell, blanch, peel
3 tbsp olive oil, more if needed
1/2 cup garlic whistles, mince, cut off the tough flower end
1/3 cup green onions, chopped
1 tsp winter savory
1 tsp rosemary
pepper
lemon juice, a few drops to taste
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
4 oz feta cheese, crumble or shave
olive oil for drizzling

Cook the pasta al dente. Reserve a cup or so of pasta water.

Meanwhile prepare fava bean ragout by heating about 3 tbsp olive oil in skillet over moderate heat. Add the fava beans, the garlic whistles, the herbs, freshly ground pepper and salt to taste. Gently cook until onions are soft and beans are tender, about 5 minutes. Add a splash of pasta water to keep moist, stir in the green onion towards end of this process to avoid overcooking.

Drain the pasta and combine the ragout and pasta in pot over low heat to gently heat and coat pasta thoroughly; add pasta water if dry. Squeeze lemon juice over the mixture, season to taste. Transfer to serving platter and garnish with cheese and parsley, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve. Serves 4 or more. ~~

Relocation Fixation

One year, two moves, 3,000 miles later and I’m back!

A re-location to Greenville, South Carolina seemed like a terrific opportunity and I was right. New surrounds, new friends, and efforts to support the Sustainable Ag movement was thrilling and distracting, posting here shifted to low priority.

This spring an unexpected series of events surfaced and in mid-May I re-valuated, minimized my life, re-packed my van, and ventured west on a life altering trip across the US with a return to Oregon and family.

Too much infomation for now, but enough to say there is a vibrant thread from those days still running through me, evident in a deepening thoughtfulness and appreciation for my daily food supply – with all that entails.

Very early this morning, in twilight thought, I realized how much has happened – and continues to play out each and every day. I’m guilty of not fully acknowledging these times and for not placing more importance on the simplest pleasures. It’s a little late for regrets, the immediacy of the moment is lost, but there’s a great likelihood that there will be more to come and more to share.

“Take the time to give each task its due –
it comes out in the food: a generosity of spirit.
Call it rejoicing, tenderness, graciousness,
or simple attention to detail,
the quality of caring
is an ingredient everyone can taste.”
– Tenzo Kyonkun

The Mighty Coconut

There’s a back story to the previously mentioned Coconut Chai Blondies. I envisioned wide pearly strips of coconut majestically gracing the tops of the tall, round statuesque blondies planned for Valentines Day.

What seemed like a such simple idea, morphed into one of those major events (a fiasco?) – or perhaps just another learning curve. The only coconut I could locate matching my imagination was the slim smatterings found in small bags of mixed dried fruit. When I spotted a fresh coconut in my market’s produce section the solution seemed obvious.

The fact that I have never successfully cracked a coconut did not phase me. Is it co-incidental that the mighty coconut seems to present itself time and time again when I am off on carefree tropical adventures? Hawaii, Tahiti, Mexico, Bahamas.. good laughs, a few injuries, but the coconut always won.

I’ve read numerous accounts on how to approach and conquer the coconut, nevertheless I did my homework again, just in case there were new discoveries in this realm. Hammer, sterilized nails, 2-cup glass measurer (we’re ready for lots of coconut water!), bowl, 2 knives, board, newspapers – and a potato peeler!

Outside, I cautiously drop the nut onto my courtyard pavers. Nothing happens. Next, a good firm downward pitch and miraculously the husk cracks and separates. It peels off easily! I shake it, inside I feel and hear liquid sloshing about.

A few well positioned taps with the hammer and nail and the coconut’s eyes are punctured, I place the nut over the glass measurer and the coconut water slowly begins dripping out! I watch, as my thirst increases by the minute. I imagine myself on a deserted island alone with my coconut. Finally, when the nut is completely empty I eye the glass measurer and it holds less than 1 cup. I draw the elixir to my lips, I think I am having a religious experience. I can smell the fruity coconut essence, the water is surprisingly mild, not sweet, not salty, just perfectly refreshing. I can do this!
Transported maybe, but not done by a long shot. The next step is to break up the coconut and access the meat inside. Forget the hammer; more aggressive slams to the pavement and the nut shatters about in manageable pieces. Now, the work of removing the inner skin begins. This is where the island mentality is helpful. I am mindful that this is a process, embrace it, try not to hurry. I am one with my coconut, enjoying life. Paring knife in hand, time passes as I patiently carve away.
Ultimately, I am left with hard, iridescently white, moist coconut chunks. Armed with potato peeler I pull across an edge and wide strips roll off. I place a layer of shreds on paper toweling, sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, and microwave a batch a minute or two until nicely toasted. This is the real deal, nothing like the stuff in packages. Pure bliss! A tall, cool drink is clearly in order.
For my blondies, I bake the coconut strips in a slow oven (about 300 degrees F.) for 20 minutes or so, not to brown them, but long enough to remove moisture. Total yield: about 3 cups. For 24 blondies: about 1/2 precious cup. Oh, my.

Sweet Distractions

Unlike many of my sisters, thus far, I have not succumbed to the chocolate craze and am able to pass on brownies, bonbons, and the like. Instead, I get giddy over creamy, unctuous caramel, and am utterly transported by a moist, buttery blondie.

Here is one that speaks to my Floridian sensibilities. This Coconut Chai Blondie is a celestial match when paired with the moist nuttiness of coconut and exotic chai spices.

Coconut is a very popular commodity in the Floridian cuisine. You’ll find it in assorted rum drinks, in salad dressings, surrounding the ever-present coconut shrimp, in our sorbets and countless baked goods. Our local Winn Dixie stocks an abundance of coconut items. When available, I often back down on the amount of butter here and replace it with about ¼ cup creamed coconut and perhaps a splash of coconut flavoring.

For a quick chai seasoning combine 1 tsp each cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and powdered ginger, plus or minus 1/2 tsp black pepper.

Coconut Chai Blondies
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp chai seasoning — heaping (see notes)
1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 cups brown sugar
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut, lightly toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line and spray 9×13 pan. Combine the dry ingredients and set aside. Lightly toast the coconut.

Heat the butter until bubbly and pour it into a mixing bowl along with the sugar and beat well. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well, and then add the vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients, mixing to combine; and then stir in the coconut.

Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan and spread evenly with offset spatula.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in center when pressed. Do not overbake.

Cool on rack for about 10 minutes. Lift foil and blondies out of the pan and cool on rack until room temperature, about 1 hour.

Browned Butter Glaze
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 – 4 tbsp. milk
1/2 cups shredded coconut, preferably wide cut

Heat the butter and salt until bubbly and golden brown. Remove from heat and stir in sugar, then the vanilla and enough milk to thin to spreading consistency.

Spread glaze over blondies. If using additional coconut, sprinkle it over glaze while still soft; cut when set. Servings: 24. ~~

Floribbean State of Mind

I’ve lived in Florida for several years now, and it took quite a while before I actually recognized that Florida is not really part of the deep South.

Many of the folks that comprise our population are transplants seeking respite from other circumstances: retirement, the law, wives and such. The State of Florida surely owes Jimmy Buffett a debt of thanks in that he has singularly attracted the highest number of the disenchanted and disengaged than any other entity. Annually legions of the dispossessed flock to our sandy beaches in search of the permanent Margaritaville fix. I definitely arrrived in that condition!

Rather than our surrounding states, the Florida melting pot is spiced up and flavored more by the easterly islands and our neighbors to the south. We resonate with the tastes of the Bahamas, Cuba, the Caribbean and Latin America, our true heritage. The term ‘Floribbean‘ generated by Norman Van Aiken and others, celebrates the best of both worlds. It recognizes the wealth of the Floridian aqua and agricultures as well as these diverse nearby nations.

The Starting Place

This is my uno numero post and I’m trusting that it will become easier as I move along.

To begin, I’ll confess that broadcasting my culinary experiences as well as my successes and failures in the kitchen is a stretch and definitely out of my comfort zone. Inwardly I’m asking, “What am I doing!? Why bother?” Of course the answer back is, “Because you need to.”

Yes, this blog is titled accurately (…and with humor), I’m hoping that my undisputed love and commitment to the culinary realm will provide me with the impetus and discipline to keep it relevant – and regular.

One of my favorite quotes:

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and has magic it it.” – Goethe

Perhaps more answers will come.