Sunday, August 11, 2013

Magnificent Obsession: Blueberries, Hazelnuts and Chocolate

It’s blueberry season in Oregon again.  Since there is an organic blueberry farm just down the road from my house, one afternoon recently I dropped everything and made a dash for the blueberry patch. 

As thunder clouds rumbled in the distance, I donned the harness that holds the bucket in place and headed to a promising row nearby.  I sampled a few as I checked the bushes for quality and quantity.  Yes indeed, it was another good year:  they were succulent and sweet. 
I’ve learned that under the long leafy branches plump clumps of berries are frequently overlooked by other pickers.  I held the branches over my bucket and went to town, filling my hands while allowing the bucket to catch the fat juicy ones that inadvertently fell as I picked.  Within about 1 ½ hours I had collected four pounds of berries and was on my way home when the storm hit. 

Back at the house, I sorted through my haul removing random leaves, attached stems, unripe or bruised berries; then carefully rinsed them.  I set aside a large bowlful for immediate snacking, cooking and sharing, laid the rest out onto baking sheets, and popped them into the freezer for later bagging and storage.   

I had bigger plans on my agenda and already knew what I wanted next.  One of the reasons for the frantic run to the berry farm was to satisfy my re-occurring blueberry smoothie dreams.  This was not any smoothie, mind you; this one was going to be a humdinger.  Blueberries and hazelnuts are big crops here in Oregon and I have long recognized their affinity and have especially enjoyed them together in salads. 

On this day, it was all about that jar of Nutella sitting in my pantry, and the magical combination of hazelnuts and chocolate.  All forms of berries partner up beautifully with chocolate.  Why not blueberries, hazelnuts and chocolate ― in a smoothie?  I may be delusional, but I considered this a smoothie of potentially magnificent proportions.

As I pull out blender ingredients I recall my whirlwind frozen yogurt episodes utilizing instant pudding mix.  I’m passing on the yogurt ― too jolting with the berries.  I reach for low fat milk instead, and add only a dash of the pudding mixture to ensure a thick creaminess. I grab the vanilla to enhance the flavors and pull out ice cubes to increase the chill factor. 

I’ve now tried several renditions and prefer to back off on the Nutella (really?) just a tad to allow the glorious blueberries to shine through.  There is a delicate balance between the luscious chocolate-hazelnut blend and the gentle berry flavors. Surprisingly, 2 tablespoons of Nutella seems too much, and 1 tablespoon is not quite enough.  You be the judge. 

This makes two filling servings, but I assure you, it’s easy to polish it all off by yourself ― once you get started.

Blueberry Obsession: Blueberry, Hazelnut and Chocolate Smoothie

·         1 ½ cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
·         1 Tbsp. white chocolate instant pudding mix
·         1 ½ Tbsp. Nutella (1 heaping tablespoon)
·         1 cup low fat milk
·         ½ tsp. vanilla
·         1 cup crushed ice

Place all ingredients in blender container and blend for two minutes.  Pour into tall glasses and serve with straws. Serves 2.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Complete Life

When it comes to life’s pleasures―and food is surely one of them, my life is far richer when there is an herb garden planted nearby.  I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be much, but there is something hugely fulfilling about kneeling amongst fresh herbs and gathering a supply to complement my cooking.  

The smell of the earth combined with the scent of freshly cut herbs restores me.   I love the perfume left behind on my skin from the oils of their bruised leaves.  On my kitchen sink, a small vase of herbs further inspires me; it brightens the space and continues to welcome all who enter. 

When I’ve lived in cold climates sage and rosemary were enough to sustain me.  In tropical locales, basil and perhaps cilantro were often my regulars.  Now, in a moderate region, I’m very fortunate to have a well rounded supply of oregano, chives, rosemary, summer and winter savory, English and lemon thyme, and purple and yellow sage.  A few of the tougher ones survive winter’s rain and snow, while fragile chives and some of the thyme, hunker in and return again when it warms up.   

Recently the thyme, savory, and oregano began going to seed.  It was time to do a quick thinning and cut them back before they became too leggy and awkward.  While I was at it, I cut everyone back and brought the residual crop inside to dry.  I laid it all out on sheet pans for a couple of days to begin the processthen moved it all to a large bowl and lightly covered it to further dry. 

This herb blend has become a real staple in my kitchen.  It may vary slightly depending on amounts and varieties used, but it is always surprisingly similar.  The winter savory, sage, and rosemary give it deep aromatic complexity while the thyme, summer savory, and oregano balance and brighten it.  Amazingly, all these unique elements seem to come together and create a distinct flavor and scent. 

I’ve always been a big herb salt fan and it didn’t take me long to figure out it was time to make my own.  Since then, herb salt has become a regular and recognizable part of my cooking.   I have resorted to regularly creating a similar blend with kosher salt.  I jazz it up a bit for gifts and special occasions by including unique grades of sea salt such as pink Himalayan or a fleur de sel.    

This herb salt blend has become my standard for sprinkling on eggs, pizza and in mixed salad dressings.  When roasting, it is my go-to seasoning for chicken and fish.  

I wish you could smell my latest batch of herbal salt.   There’s a slight whiff of pine trees and desert trails, lush floral notes, and lilting wafts of citrus. It is crazy that a jar of herbs and salt could anchor me to the land and resonate of the hills and valleys that surround me. 

Yes, it's true, though; my herb salt blend actually does provide an identifiable sense of place. 


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