Friday, July 31, 2009

a small, good thing

That is the title of a Ramon Carver story. In it, a baker offers hot rolls to a couple whose son has died. He says, "Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this."

Last week, I found out that the creamy cheddar potatoes we have at Easter are sometimes called "Funeral Potatoes." Somehow that doesn't make me like them any less. I always welcome comfort food.

I have been to my fair share of funerals. I am intrigued by what is served at the reception. Sometimes it's catered, most often a potluck of dishes. I like the casseroles, the broccoli salads, the desserts with marshmallow. Usually those grieving hardly touch the food, won't remember what exactly was served. But they will remember the gesture.

My friends and I went to an out-of-town funeral last weekend. On our drive there, we stopped a small-town diner, where the regulars each have their own mug. We drank marginal (weak) coffee. I think it would have tasted better in a personalized mug.

I decided to bring something nontraditional to the reception, as far as funeral food goes. Tucked in the buffet, just past the ham, baked beans, and brownies, was my contribution of Hazelnut Shortbread.

I used an old Gourmet recipe for hazelnut cookies and changed a few things. These aren't as buttery as traditional shortbread, but you won't miss it with the hazelnut and orange flavors. And please don't hold off on baking them. You deserve a small, good thing every day.

Hazelnut Shortbread

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup hazelnuts, slightly roasted and cooled, ground

Preheat oven to 325°F. and grease 1 large or 2 small baking sheets.
With an electric mixer, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in vanilla and zest.
Into another bowl sift together flour, salt, and baking powder, beat into butter mixture until just combined. Stir in ground nuts.
Roll level tablespoons of dough into balls and put 2-inches apart on baking sheets. Press lightly with a flat object (i.e. bottom of a glass) until you have a 1/2" disk. Bake cookies in batches in middle of oven until pale golden, about 18 minutes depending on your oven. Cool cookies on baking sheets 2 minutes and carefully transfer with a metal spatula to racks to cool completely. Store in a sealed container and eat within a few days. Or freeze some for a rainy day.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fennel Salad, two ways

There is a stand at the farmers' market with these enormous bulbs of fennel. It is almost impossible to fit two in a produce bag. I smile with pride at the checkout, even though anyone else could be going home with the same prize.

If fennel is new to you, let me make an introduction. Fennel has the texture and crunch of celery, with a slight licorice smell and flavor. It is the white bulb that we cook with. (The green stalks are more fibrous and rough.) Some people like cooking with dried fennel seeds as well.

For a Memorial Day barbecue, I made a shaved fennel and orange salad, with little luscious chunks of avocado. I don't have a photo, so even though it was quite refreshing, we will move on to salads I can show you.

The first let's call "Kitchen Sink" Fennel Salad. It was a warm weekend afternoon, with a fridge full of produce, far too much for one person. In response, I made an unusual potato/fennel salad. Fingerling potatoes, fennel, radishes, and avocado. I was about to make a buttermilk dressing, when I remembered I had some crème fraîche. With a splash of rice vinegar and S&P, it was the perfect fix.

Homemade Crème Fraîche

1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk

Combine cream and buttermilk in a clean glass jar and seal. Set on a counter for 8-24 hours at room temperature, until thick. Refrigerate and use up to 10 days.

(Crème fraîche is a richer, sweeter, somewhat nuttier version of sour cream.)

Round two: Copying the deli salad. I got a great fennel salad with salami at the deli. It had shaved fennel, salami, shredded parmesan, olive oil, and cracked pepper. At home, I did not have any parmesan on hand. So, I used some comtè, which is a semi-hard cheese. And I added some chopped parsley. Toss and enjoy...

Monday, July 20, 2009

some for now, some for later

At the farmers market, I bought two kinds of cherries and two kinds of green beans. I preserved cherries, one jar of Rainier’s with Rosé, one of Bings with bourbon. (We shall see…) I didn’t have any fresh dill on hand, but was eager to pickle some of the green beans, so I made due with coriander, mustard seed, and chili. I’ll do a dill version and compare. For dinner, I blanched, then sautéed the Romano green beans, adding a little salt and lemon zest at the end.

When my cousins and I eat at Navarre (, we usually order bread, olive oil, cheese, and some veggie dish or salad. And wine. (Whoever arrives first gets the order started.) Most people at Navarre order a wide range of dinner dishes, including the wonderful buffalo flank steak, bright beets with lentils, radishes, green garlic, or their fantastic mushrooms. In comparison, our table looks drab. Nevertheless, we do love it. As you can tell, I often copy this at home. Now I just need to learn how to copy their chocolate mousse.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Day Away

Last week, someone asked me when I last went on a trip by myself. No friends, family. Just me. I spend time alone at home or running errands, but it did make me think... The last trip alone was ten years ago. So, for a practice trip, I decided to start local. I went to Seattle for the day. Starting at Bakery Bar, I got coffee and a scone (fig, rosemary, and goat cheese). And hit the road.

Once in Seattle, I went to the library, which I had walked by, but never toured. It is a large building, with so much visual stimulation. However, as it should be, the hundreds of people there were quiet, quiet. Reading and enjoying the space individually. Together.

I always stop by the Pike market, to see the flowers, produce, donut stand and fish market. I didn't feel up to the crowds, so I stepped into the side alley. And found entertainment.

A sunny meal with a view. The heirloom tomatoes were very juicy. It made me think hopeful thoughts for my little garden.

I wandered around Ballard. Had a fantastic French coconut macaroon with salted caramel filling. I went to the locks and watched the boats, went to the beach and read. I walked through shops. Bought some vintage tea spoons. When I was eating dinner outside later, the shop owner walked by and waved. I felt like part of the neighborhood. (That meal was more expensive, but disappointed. The prawns were supposed to be rubbed with fennel, but showed up with olive tapenade. However, the manhattan was delicious - with bing cherries. I should've taken a picture of that.)

I got what I wanted out of the day trip though. A step outside of my normal Saturday. Familiar, with a twist.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Green walnuts, warm brown cloves

When I was in college, my Grandpa taught me how to make Blackberry Bounce, a strong and sweet blackberry liqueur. I was impressed at how easy it is to make an alcoholic infusion. The hardest part was picking the berries! We started a tradition of late August berry picking and infusing. I have fallen out of practice in recent years, but with my renewed love of bottling, preserving, pickling and such, I think I will be pushing my way through his blackberry bushes again this year.

Mix, a Portland food/beverage magazine, had a story this summer about Nocino (or Nocello), the Italian walnut liqueur. ( The article described this happy group of friends who gather every summer for an outdoor meal and Nocino-making party. The hosts seemed so gracious and fun - and I immediately wished I could be on their invitation list – or at least knew someone with a walnut tree.

A month or so later, my friend Ben had a dinner. He is a skilled distiller, brewer, and vintner. (And he makes a mean pesto.) We sampled some of his homemade beverages, including Nocino/Nocello with dessert. I remarked on my desire to make it myself. Not only did Ben supply me with a bottle of Rosé he thought would work well in the mix, but he also led me outside to the big walnut tree in his yard. I now have a friend with a walnut tree - and I now have a jar of walnut liqueur infusing in my dining room.

Nocino/Nocello/Italian Walnut Liqueur

30 green walnuts, quartered
1 liter grain alcohol
1 liter white or Rosé wine
2 lb. Sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
30 cloves
Peel from one lemon

Combine in gallon jar. Shake regularly for 60 days. It does not need to be someplace cool; in fact, some people put it on their back porch in direct sunlight. Let sit and enjoy in approximately 18 months (i.e. next Christmas). I'm wondering if I can cheat on this time commitment... Strain and bottle.

Note: The walnuts will temporarily stain your fingers. Wear gloves if you are concerned about this side effect. They also stained by cutting board, but I'm going to chalk it up to battle scars.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Number One

“Tastes like more.” My Dad used to say that after his first bite of something tasty. He loved apple pie, so it was often his compliment to pie or another baked good. Whenever my Grandma made him sugar cookies, he would hoard them and cherish each one for their simple comfort. But it's hard to stop at just one.

When you taste something delicious, don’t you want more?

My Grandma’s cookie recipe is a secret. She usually brings them to social gatherings and likes that they are one-of-a-kind. As I live in Oregon and she lives in Iowa, it is unlikely we would bring them to the same event. I promised her I would never make them when she is around; I like it when she bakes them. She was not swayed. I still wanted the cookies, so I tried a few recipes and this one is the closest to Gram’s. (Please don't tell her.)

Like Grandma’s: Soft Sugar Cookies from

3 ¼ c. a-p flour, sift before measuring
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ c. butter, at room temperature
1 c. granulated sugar
1 egg
1 ½ tsp. vanilla (or sub ground nutmeg)
½ c. sour cream

(I think my Grandma uses Crisco instead of butter, for a lighter texture. This is not confirmed.)

In a bowl, sift together the sifted flour, baking soda, and salt. In a mixing bowl, cream butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla with an electric mixer. Beat for two minutes. Add sour cream and half of the dry ingredients. Beat one minute. Stir in remaining dry ingredients with a wooden spoon. Divide dough in half and roll out each portion on a lightly floured surface to ¼-inch thick. Cut with floured cookie cutter. Place on greased cookie sheets and bake at 400˚ for 8-10 minutes. (They should still be pale on top, but lightly browned on the bottom. I would take them out at 7 minutes, unless you are using parchment paper or something fancy.) When cool, store in an airtight container.

My Grandma dusts them with sugar before baking. I have added lemon zest or ground cardamom before and like the results. My family prefers them plain vanilla, accompanied by milk or coffee. Sometimes my Grandma calls them “cake cookies.” They make excellent strawberry shortcake cakes.