Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lavender Highlights

The lovely tall arched blossom wands of my lavender plants have been winking and waving at me lately with their most seductive “come hither” look. It’s their last hurrah of the season and they want to be memorialized, not left high and dry.

In that spirit, I went online and visited a few of my fellow food writers and bloggers to see what they were doing with lavender. Over at http://www.seriouseats.com/, an Italian Lavender Honey Spice Cake caught my attention; I’ve always been a sucker for French honey spice cake. Another promising idea for Lavender Syrup, came from http://www.cafejohnsonia.blogspot.com/.

Lavender honey is luscious, but not this time around I mused; so why not create lavender syrup and drizzle it over the cake after it is baked? Thus, evolved Prune and Fennel Tea Bread Laced with Lavender Syrup, a dense loaf scattered with dried plums and toasted hazelnuts. It's a far cry from the Lavender Honey Spice Cake, but it was my starting point, and I appreciate the impetus. However, it is similar to the honey cake in that it improves with age. If you can bear it, wrap the loaf tightly and let it rest in the fridge a day or two to allow the flavors to meld; it’s well worth the wait. Try it in the afternoon with a cup of Earl Grey Tea.

I have some thoughts on Lavender Syrup. Lavender is known for its therapeutic and medicinal qualities, and can become seriously intense when overdone. This particular syrup is well balanced and intoxicatingly mild. It’s so enjoyable, that I have concocted a refreshing cooler which takes advantage of my current supply of Lavender Syrup: in a glass, muddle 1-2 Tbsp. Lavender Syrup and a sprig of mint, add ice and top it off with Sparkling Water with Lemon Essence.

Prune and Fennel Tea Bread Laced with Lavender Syrup
1/2 cup prunes (dried plums), about 10 large, seeded & lightly chop
1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped, toasted
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted
1 1/2 cups flour, optional: substitute 1/2 cup wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon allspice
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted, cooled
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1/2 cup yogurt, or sour milk
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1/2 cup Lavender Syrup (see below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 9x5" loaf pan.

Combine prunes, nuts and fennel and set aside. Combine dry ingredients thru allspice and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, lightly beat eggs, then whisk in sugar until light. Whisk in melted butter, then the oil. Stir in 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then 1/2 of the combined yogurt and vanilla. Stir in another 1/3 of the dry, then the remaining milk and vanilla. Add the final dry ingredients and the fruit and nut mixture. Spread into loaf pan and bake 50-60 minutes until golden and pick inserted comes out clean.

Let the loaf stand briefly, then poke the loaf with a skewer. Slowly drizzle the syrup over the loaf. Let stand 10-15 minutes to allow syrup to soak in and remove the cake from pan. Cool on rack.

Wrapped well, this cake improves with age; if possible, allow the flavors to blend at a least a day or two.

Lavender Syrup
Inspired by
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons lavender leaves or flowers
dash vanilla extract

Bring water and sugar to a boil, stir to dissolve, and simmer to thicken slightly, about 30 minutes.

Add lavender to syrup, remove from heat and let stand about 15 minutes; reheat to just below boiling point again and let stand about 15 minutes, repeat one more time, remove from heat and stir in vanilla; allow to steep until cool. Strain into bottle. Add a clean long stem of lavender for decoration if desired. Store in fridge. Let stand a couple of days before using.

Note: Culinary lavender may also be found at http://www.penzeys.com/

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Garden Salsa

Salsa has a long standing position of love, celebration, and sharing in our family. When my daughters were growing up, I learned to make salsa at the hands of a well-seasoned master, my father-in-law, Gene Graven. He was a colorful raconteur, a bigger-than-life character who lived an Ernest Hemmingway sort of existence. He loved the women; he was an avid fisherman, he hunted, worked and traveled extensively in Latin America, and he even dabbled in Hollywood films. Most of all, he loved life and he shared it with devilish generosity.

I thought of Grandpa Graven recently as I was making salsa from the garden. Although my salsas have varied over the years, his true basics are still included: garlic, onion, peppers, and tomatoes--beyond that, the skies the limit. On this occasion, I had plum tomatoes, a delicious lemon cucumber, a Hungarian pepper, garlic, and a Walla Walla onion to add to the mix. With a handful of cilantro and a good squeeze of lime, it was spot-on!

Of course, I slathered plenty of this salsa atop an excellent Chile Verde mentioned in a recent post. Boy was it good. I imagine Grandpa Gene is grinning in approval with an ever-present stogie perched from the corner of his lips, and he's mouthing the words, “Dos Equis.”

Mama Borah's Salsa
Similar to Grandpa Graven's salsa, especially handy when to
matoes are not plentiful
4 large tomatoes, seeded, cut up
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
4 jalapeno peppers, seeded, minced
1 small can Ortega chilies, chopped
1/2 large Vidalia onion, chopped
1/4 cilantro, optional
1 pound canned tomatoes, drained and seeded, chopped
1/2 lime, juice of
1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper

To prepare manually, chop or mince all items and place in a molcajete or a mortar and pestle; crush tomatoes through onions and cilantro. If unavailable, use a medium bowl and a clean small slender bottle such sauce bottle, and press down to break up fibrous pieces. Add the chopped tomatoes and grind again; season to taste with lime juice, salt and pepper.

To use a food processor, lightly pulse tomatoes through onion and cilantro. Add canned tomatoes and pulse briefly, do not over process. Add lime juice, salt and pepper, and adjust seasoning. Makes about 3 cups. ~~

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Meditation on Chile Verde

With the big Oregon State/Boise game scheduled for prime time viewing this past week, I wanted to have a big pot of piping hot Chile Verde ready when hunger hit. I am so glad for the forethought, because as it turned out for this Oregonian, the chili was the high point (no pun intended) of the night. In a nutshell, Boise controlled the game and left us in their dust. It didn’t stop there; low points kept coming when Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount decided to deck a Boise teammate for heckling him post game. The remembrance of this bungled match-up was even more unsettling as fans watched while Blount was escorted/dragged off the field, screaming and kicking like a spoiled child.
Thank heavens the Chile Verde was deliciously soothing! Although I had little doubt about that--since preparing chili, in one form or other, should be an act of love. Excellent chili is a thoughtful process that requires several steps and a certain amount of time and effort.
As far as I am concerned, the ultimate flavor of Chile Verde depends on the addition of pork. In this case, I begin with a lean sirloin pork roast and cut it into chunks. I brown it well, and allow it to slowly simmer until fork tender and the liquid has pretty much cooked away. Then, I pull it apart with a couple of forks until it falls into shreds.
While the pork browns, simmers, and stews, I launch into prepping the very easy verde sauce. I begin by husking, and simmering a dozen tomatillos for the base. When they are soft, I drain off a portion of the liquid and puree them in the blender until thick. I prep a handful of jalapeno peppers, a couple of bell peppers, and an onion into strips. (In the past, I have also used ripe and flavorful poblano peppers--instead of the bell peppers, which can be fairly bland.)

Adding separate layers of flavor to the pork intensifies the final result; so this is when the onions, peppers and garlic are added to the pork and allowed to soften. Following that, another round of seasoning is added with cumin, oregano, chili powder - and perhaps a bit of smoked paprika, which mysteriously lurks in the background. All of this is lovingly tossed together until aromatic. The tomatillo sauce is stirred in and allowed to simmer into the pork a few minutes; then the cooked beans are added, the pot is reduced to low, and barely simmered for an hour or so.

Of course, chili is always best when the flavors further develop by refrigerating overnight. Here, the tomatillos provide a tarter, more acidic flavor than the tomatoes. The amount of heat can be controlled by the removal/addition of the membrane and seeds of the chiles used. Of course, jalapenos and poblanos are hotter than bell peppers. On final, I stir in the crowning touch, a handful of chopped cilantro--which further enhances the tomatillos with a pronounced herbal-citrus bite. I like mine with a drizzle of chive crema. Be still my heart.
Chile Verde
2 1/2 pounds pork roast, cut up
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon oregano
6 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1 whole onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chile powder, and/or smoked paprika
2 teaspoons cumin
12 tomatillos, halved, 1/2 cup chopped onion, pinch oregano simmered til tender
4 - 12 oz. cans assorted beans: red, black, pink, white, etc., rinsed and drained
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons cornmeal, thinned in 1/2 cup water (optional)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

In a large pot brown the pork, add onion and garlic and toss until aromatic. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with water and simmer until fall apart tender, and liquid is absorbed; one hour or longer.

Prepare tomatillos: remove husks, if large cut in half; rinse and place in a saucepan with 1/2 cup chopped onion and a pinch of oregano; add water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tomatillos are soft, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool. Place in blender and puree; set aside.

When the pork is tender, break chunks up with a fork to lightly shred. Add peppers, onion and garlic and toss until aromatic and onion becomes soft. Add chili powder, cumin, and toss till aromatic. Pour in the tomatillo sauce and simmer briefly. Add the beans and toss to combine simmer 45 minutes; if you wish to thicken it further, stir in cornmeal thinned in water and continue to simmer until thick another 15 to 20 minutes. Adjust seasoning. Stir in cilantro, if desired and serve. Serves 8.

Note: for Chive Crema: stir 2 Tbsp chopped chives into 2 cups yogurt until desired consistency. Add a dash of salt and taste for seasoning. Let stand a few minutes before serving to blend flavors. ~~


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