Ladle Women

My father and uncles have a summer garden at my Grammie’s house. Rows of eggplants, jalapeños, zucchinis, cherry and plum tomatoes are poking out of every corner of the little plot of land. It’s an exploding tangle and a bit hard to tame.

However, sometimes the things that appear wildest can be the most beautiful. As Jo March, the most dynamic sister in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, demonstrated, a sprawling landscape can also mean endless possibility and direction. The overflowing tomatoes in the Grammie garden are wonderfully flavorful and have so much complex depth.

Take this colorful soup, for instance. Like adventurous Jo, this dish breaks boundaries. Crossing the seasonal expectation of autumnal and wintry soups, the garden fresh flavors keep this soup light and summery. The hearty tomatoes, bright basil, and tangy goat cheese garnish take something seemingly overwhelming like an untamed garden and turn it into an absolutely delightful experience.

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Roasted Tomato Basil Soup:

8 ripe tomatoes

1/2 onion

5 garlic cloves

2 cups chicken stock

1 tbsp dried oregano

2 tbsp dried basil

1/2 cup fresh basil

2 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instruction:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Core tomatoes and slice in half. Toss in olive oil, dried oregano, dried basil, salt and pepper. (Leave a bit of the herbs, spices, and oil to the side.) Spread in baking dish.

2. Make a small tin foil pouch. Toss garlic cloves and remaining herbs, spices, and oil together; seal in the pouch and tuck in a corner of the baking dish. Roast tomatoes and garlic for about an hour.

3. When tomatoes and garlic are finished roasting, set aside to cool a bit. In the meantime, in a large pot sauté onion in olive oil and a bit of salt until softened.

4. Add tomato, garlic, and all of the liquid, herbs, and spices from the baking dish. Add chicken stock and bring contents of pot to a boil. Reduce to simmer and let cook uncovered for about fifteen minutes.

5. Turn off heat, and ladle the solids out of the pot into blender. (Save liquid, as consistency of puree will vary.) Add liquid as necessary – the soup should be moderately thick.

6. Strain through a sieve for an extremely silky texture.

Whipped Goat Cheese:

150 g goat cheese, room temperature

1/8 fresh basil, chopped finely

1/2 tsp salt

Instruction:

1. Using an electric beater, whip goat cheese, basil, and salt for about 30 seconds, until creamy and combined.

2. Use a cookie scoop to dollop goat cheese onto each bowl of soup. Garnish with fresh basil.

Enjoy roasted tomato basil soup and herbed goat cheese with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

A Wrinkle in Thyme

I work as a nanny for four French children between the ages of two and six, which can get a bit exhausting at times. The four and six-year-olds are inquisitive (to say the least), constantly asking me, “Where are you going? When are you coming back? Why are you reading that? Will you come play with me?” The two-year-old twins, just learning how to express themselves clearly, ask “Quoi? Quoi? Quoi” while pointing to various objects throughout the house.

The children’s questions are pretty easy to answer, but questions from elsewhere are more difficult. For example, a recent exam for my culinary science class asked about the properties of gelatin, and why in a panna cotta the structure could stay firm in its mold but also spread so well on a cracker.

I must admit, though: at times it gets tiresome, and every once in a while I wish the children (and my culinary science professor) would just stop asking questions. But two weeks ago, as I listened to the children’s mother on the phone with family in Paris, I realized the importance of being able to question. The journalists and cartoonists who worked at Charlie Hebdo were murdered because they questioned extremists through word and art. They were robbed of their expression, which robbed them of their lives.

Though there may be times when I don’t feel like answering the children’s questions, I realize it is important to encourage such curiosity, even if only in a small way, so that they may always feel the freedom to express themselves. In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, give the children hints and direction throughout their journey. Their names alone represent the importance of questioning as a way to illuminate darkness. An inquisitive mind and a childlike curiosity are great powers, and they make finding any answer an exciting adventure, as Meg discovers in L’Engle’s beloved novel. (Although even now, I just prefer to leave the properties of gelatin as a big question mark.) DSC_0254

Savory panna cotta:

350 ml heavy cream

150 ml whole milk

125 g goat cheese

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

~10 sprigs of thyme

1/2 teaspoon of salt

4 gelatin leaves

Instruction:

1. Soak gelatin leaves in cold water for several minutes.

2. In the meantime, on medium heat, whisk cream, milk, and goat cheese until cheese is melted. When simmering, add thyme, lemon zest and juice, and salt, and turn off heat. Let sit for five minutes, then strain into a bowl.

3. Squeeze excess moisture from gelatin leaves and whisk into hot, strained cream mixture until dissolved. Optionally transfer to pitcher to make pouring into mold easier.

4. Pour into any mold of your choosing, then chill in refrigerator until set. (Depending on size of mold, this could take anywhere from one hour to overnight.)

5. When set, use a paring knife to loosen the edges of the panna cotta from the mold. Turn out onto plate, and serve with crackers, an arugula salad, or any sort of chutney.

Enjoy thyme and goat cheese panna cotta with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Thyme, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

This Is Where Olive You

I decided at a very early age that I had a particular disdain for olives. I’d stand even firmer in this opinion when people would tell me that olives were ‘an acquired taste.’ The option of snacking on these small but potent little spheres was ruled out years ago. There are things in life we claim not to like. Certain foods, certain chores, certain people. But perhaps if we were to treat these things differently we’d see a more redeemable side.

Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You describes a dysfunctional family’s reunion while sitting shiva. Longstanding feuds and silences have left the grieving process compounded by awkwardness and hostility. The novel follows the main protagonist through his return home to a catastrophic reunion with his family, and the path to reconciliation paved with changed attitudes and a few surprises.

As I grow older and maybe even a bit wiser, I’ve begun to change my own attitude towards olives. Instead of ignoring them and wrinkling my nose, I have approached them in a new way, applying a new technique, discovering different textures and flavors, and growing to appreciate – and perhaps even like them.

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Deep-Fried Stuffed Olives

1 jar (about 20) black olives : pitted, soaked, dried

1 log (350 g) goat cheese

1 red pepper: roasted in olive oil, salt, pepper

For pané: 1/2 cup flour (mixed with a teaspoon of salt), 1 egg, 1/2 cup breadcrumb

Instruction:

1. Soak olives in water for an hour to reduce brine flavor. Rinse and dry thoroughly.

2. Roast red peppers (with olive oil, s&p) in 350 degree oven for about twenty minutes, then peel skin and dice flesh finely

3. Combine goat cheese with peppers. Pipe mixture into olives.

4. Dredge olives in salted flour, dip in egg, and cover in breadcrumbs.

5. Fill a pan with veg oil, about quarter of an inch deep. Heat oil until shimmering, but not smoking. Add olives until slightly golden brown, then flip and fry the other side.

Enjoy deep-fried stuffed olives with Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You, and check in at warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

The Grape Gatsby

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The first time I went to France and tried a crepe was during my early high school years. My family spent several days in Paris, and one day we went to lunch at a small hole-in-the-wall creperie with limited seating and a loudly singing proprietor. I ordered a simple ham and cheese filling, followed by a strawberry and nutella for dessert. I was amazed that the same foundation, a simple crepe batter with only four or five ingredients, could be a vehicle for such different and unique flavor combinations – sweet or savory, creamy or fruity.

Around the same time, I was assigned to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In middle school, I did not have a very good relationship with reading. I would lazily skim for school assignments – getting the gist of the plot but missing the beautiful character descriptions and the subtleties in the language. The Great Gatsby reminded me of the wonderful creativity of literature. It lifted me out of my reading slump. I read it slowly, taking my time with each chapter. I listened to the dialogue in my head, and pictured the Gatsby mansion and its lavish parties. Like my first experience at the Paris creperie, I was amazed by the variety of the book and how different it was from any literature I had ever experienced.

Fitzgerald’s writing style is light and crisp, full of dynamic characters and elegant surprises. Any crepe can parallel these themes – never becoming too heavy or unmanageable, but providing enough variety in texture and flavor to be interesting.

I am always looking for parallels between my passions, and cooking and reading intersect in their endless possibilities. One can never run out of books to read or recipes to try. If ever in a slump, look for something different from anything you’ve tried in the past; it will surely revive you!

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Crepe batter:

4 eggs

2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, unsalted and melted

Filling:

1 cup red grapes, halved

1 cup goat cheese, crumbled

3 chicken breasts

Basil

2 tbsp flour

2 tbsp butter

2 cups whole milk

Salt, pepper

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cup white wine

Instruction:

1. Combine flour, sugar, and salt. Whisk milk and eggs in separate bowl. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients in portions, whisking in between additions so as to avoid lumps in the batter. Whisk in melted butter. Cover batter in cling film and allow to rest for 20 minutes. (You can mix these ingredients in a blender, but I like to whisk by hand to have more control!)

2. Season both sides of chicken breast with salt and pepper. In a sautee pan over medium-high heat, sear chicken breasts on either side for a golden brown color. Finish in a 350 degree oven for about 10-12 minutes (until firm and cooked through). Remove from oven and cover  with tin foil to retain moisture as the chicken cools a bit.

3. For cream sauce: melt butter in small saucepan. Add flour and stir over medium heat, allowing flour to cook out for a minute or so. Add heated milk bit by bit, whisking between additions to avoid lumps. In a separate saucepan, bring lemon juice and white wine to a simmer and reduce by half. Add lemon wine mixture to the milk pan; season with salt and pepper.

4. Halve red grapes, crumble goat cheese, cube chicken, and chop basil.

5. Assembly of crepes: grease a non-stick frying pan with butter on medium-high heat. Spread a ladle-full of thin batter in the pan, creating an even layer. Allow first side of crepe to cook for about 45 seconds; flip with spatula and allow second side to cook for about 30 seconds. Add fillings (cream sauce, grapes, goat cheese, cubed chicken, basil) to crepe and fold to contain all elements.

Enjoy your crepe with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and check in at warandpeach.wordpress.com for future recipes and book reviews!