Monday, July 23, 2012

Watermelon Birthday Cake and an Ode to Oia

The Setting: A messy apartment, beginning to be packed...I can't believe it's almost time to move again!

The Soundtrack: Central air and I'll miss thee!

On the Stovetop: Quesadillas.

The Scenario: Celebrating Oia's first birthday with a watermelon cake and a poem.

I know this sounds a little hard-core, but when Oia was born I made a commitment to myself not to let her eat processed sweets at least until she was old enough to ask for them by name.

I don't plan to micro-manage every dietary choice she makes--I know that I can only make decisions for her for so long.

But I feel very strongly that as long as I am in control, as long as her nutrition is 100% in my hands, and as long as all she has a taste for is what I give her, I have to take that responsibility seriously.

Friends pleaded with me not to deprive her of the essential joys of that long-awaited first birthday cake. It was a decision I struggled with for a while.

But then I considered whose joy was really in jeopardy here.

I wouldn't get to exercise my cake-making skills; I wouldn't get to see Oia look silly with a face full of icing; I wouldn't have an excuse (as if I needed one) to stuff my own face with frosting.

In the end I determined the tradition of a one-year-old smashing cake in her face is an act appreciated mainly by those watching, not a biological desire of the one-year-old herself.

And, when I thought about it, it really wasn't something I cared to see.

So I came up with an idea to give us all the celebration with none of the guilt.

It's just as messy and delicious as a real cake, but good for you, too!

To Oia on her First Birthday

My tiny little angel
With honey-colored hair
Your smile is even sweeter
Than the tiny clothes you wear

My precious little monster
With eyes of indigo
Your giggles make me giddy
And set my heart aglow

My lovely little daughter
With dimples oh so deep
Your heart beats next to mine
When on my lap you sleep

I love your gentle nature
And your gentle kisses too
I love your funny faces
And the funny things you do

You've learned to play with blocks and books
Put on a hat and walk
I know it won't be long now
Till you really start to talk

It's so hard to believe
As we sing and dance and play
That I first saw your face
A year ago today

Happy birthday, my sweet Oia
Mommy loves you

Thanks for reading. Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Head Cheese, Turkey Tails and D.C.'s Eastern Market

The Setting: An apartment beginning to take on the smell of smoked and cured meat products...not its worst scent this week.

The Soundtrack: Duck Dynasty. Hoosband got me hooked.

Steaming up the Oven: Bread.

The Scenario: After several weeks in the nearby Virginia suburbs, last weekend Hoosband, Oia, and I finally made it to our nation's capital to check out D.C.'s Eastern Market.

We didn't have much of a purchasing plan in mind, but it seemed a good bet we'd bring home some fresh produce...

Freshly caught seafood....

Or perhaps some freshly made pasta.

But for some reason, when we arrived at the market, all we seemed to notice were the meats.

There were rib-eyes, pork chops, sausages, bacon--all the usual suspects.

But these were not the meats that called to us today.

Today, we determined, would be a day of peculiarity.

Thus, we loaded down the bottom of Oia's stroller with souse, headcheese, smoked turkey tails, smoked hog jowl, jamon Iberico, and, to accompany it all, an admittedly less peculiar, but much needed, crusty rustic baguette.

By the time we got home we smelled a little like a BBQ joint...or a butcher shop...but either way, the fragrance of lunch was upon us.

We quickly assembled a plate of our spoils, complete with a little cultured goat butter from the fridge.

If you've never tried goat butter, try swapping it for the cow's milk variety the next time you need something to slather on some crusty bread. Rich and velvety like regular butter, it has a little more depth and intensity of flavor that I find irresistibly addictive.

And paired with jamon Iberico de bellota and a warm baguette, there are very, very few things better.

Though strangely illegal for import into the U.S. until recent years, Spain's prized Iberian ham is becoming more and more available in the States--incredible news for stateside cured-meat enthusiasts.

Iberian pigs are a special breed of black-hoofed hogs that range freely through oak forests, foraging for the fatty acorns that give the top-quality Spanish ham its signature marbling and flavor.

If referred to as "terrine," or even "meatloaf in aspic," the sliceable meat product we sampled next sounds rather gourmet.

But call it head cheese, and you're likely to send people running.

Tell them what it's made of, and they'll be gone for good--unless, that is, the concept of a cold cut made from the head and various other discardable calf or pig parts held together with gelatin appeals to them, as it does Hoosband.

Of course, if head cheese is a little too tame for your tastes, there's always souse: head cheese that's been pickled in vinegar and spices. It often contains pimentos to help visually distinguish it from plain old head cheese.

The flavor of the souse isn't as aggressive as you'd think, and it pairs nicely with spicy mustard and bread...but somehow I like the regular head cheese a wee bit more.

I LOVE holidays. Hoosband and I start planning the Thanksgiving meal months in advance, but no matter what festive sides we come up with or what pies we perfect, our favorite part of the feast is always sharing the crispy, meaty, fatty, flavorful turkey tail as soon as we pull the bird out of the oven.

We're a little cultish about our love of poultry tails--turkey in particular. We've considered making a bulk purchase over the Internet (never did find a good source), and we always keep our eyes peeled for them at the meat counter, but the butchers usually balk at our requests.

So when we saw the smoked turkey tails at the Eastern Market, it was a no-brainer.

If you're lucky enough to find some near you, crisp them in a 400-degree-F oven for 20 minutes, flipping them halfway through for even crisping.

They will be hot, greasy, messy, and a bit of a challenge to gnaw on. But if all that sounds like your kind of party, you won't be disappointed.

If you were paying extra-close attention, you may have noticed one of our Eastern Market purchases was missing from today's tasting plate.

Stay tuned to find out the fate of our giant smoked pork jowl!

Thanks for reading. Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Braised Short Ribs and Polyface Farms

The Setting: A toy-scattered apartment in need of a good vacuuming.

The Soundtrack: Relative silence.

On the Stovetop: Chicken breasts for Vietnamese Chicken Salad.

The Scenario: Last weekend, Oia, Hoosband and I ventured down to Polyface Farms, home of outspoken champion of sustainable agriculture and author of such books as Salad Bar BeefFolks, This Ain't Normal, and Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, Joel Salatin.

Farmers at heart ourselves and longtime fans of Salatin, we were excited to check out the farm, get a little inspiration, let the little one see some real, live farm animals, and pick up some organic, grass-fed meat.

Majestically situated in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the "farm of many faces" produces forage-based rabbits, "Pigaerator Pork," stewing hens, pastured turkeys, pastured broilers, pastured eggs, sustainable lumber, and "Salad Bar Beef."

Polyface cows (you can see one in the distance--it's the speck to the left of the third tree) feast on a new salad bar of pasture almost every day, which leads to healthier cows, healthier meat, and a healthier Earth.

Pigs work as they lounge, aerating their thick bedding and helping turn it into fertile compost.

Bunnies happily forage in a portable shelter among rows of berries and other crops.

Pastured broilers are moved to fresh pasture daily. They get plenty of exercise and eat local, GMO-free grains and freshly sprouted grasses.

Laying hens freely range from an egg-mobile that follows behind the cows. The chickens scratch through cow patties to "cleanse" the pastures as they go.

A solar panel helps make use of the sun's energy.

As part of their commitment to their community, the environment, and the local food movement, Polyface Farms will not ship any of their food out of state. Their products can be found at a handful of Virginia retailers, as well as in their own on-site store.

If shopping for Polyface products, don't expect supermarket prices. Of course, you'd be hard-pressed to find in the supermarket what you can find here: incredibly tasty meat, painstakingly produced by pasture-based practices, steadfastly dedicated to nurturing animals, land, and people back to health.

We left the farm with a package of beef short ribs and a deeper appreciation of where the food we eat should come from.

For more information on Polyface Farms, check out or

Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs with Sweet Corn Polenta
This is a hearty, soul-warming dish, perfect for renewing one's spirits after a hard-day's work on the farm...or wherever else you toil. Grass-fed, "salad-bar" beef gives the dish a deep, enticingly minerally flavor and aroma. This is not a quick dish; its flavors are gradually developed and deepened as the connective tissue on the ribs slowly melts away to enrich the velvety sauce. If desired, the ribs can be made in advance, and the polenta can be prepared quickly before serving. Precise measurements for the ingredients are not nearly as important as slowing down to make and enjoy this meal with the ones you love.

For the beef:
garlic powder
freshly cracked black pepper
oil (such as vegetable or peanut) for the pan
2 1/2 lbs beef short ribs
8 oz cremini (baby portabella) mushrooms, sliced
1-2 T unsalted butter
1 large onion, diced
3 large carrots, diced
3-4 ribs celery (including any leaves), diced
1 1/2 T tomato paste
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried basil
2 cups dry red wine (I used a cheap Pinot noir)
2 cups unsalted beef stock

For the Polenta:
3 ears sweet corn
1-2 T unsalted butter
freshly cracked black pepper
pinch sugar
2 cups unsalted beef stock
1 cup water
1 cup dry polenta (preferably organic)
4 oz (1/2 package) cream cheese

several leaves fresh basil
several leaves fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a wide, shallow dish or baking pan, whisk together about 1/2 cup flour and about 2 tsp each garlic powder, salt, and pepper.

Pour just enough oil into a 4-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven to coat the bottom, and place over med-high heat.

Dredge the short ribs in the flour, lightly coating on all sides.

Shake any excess flour back down into the dish as you transfer each section of short ribs to the saucepan. Avoid crowding the pan; work in batches if necessary. Brown the ribs on both sides (about 2 minutes on each), adjusting the heat if necessary to prevent burning. Remove pan from heat and transfer ribs to a clean plate, also transferring any large pieces of browned bits that easily come out of the pan. Cover and set aside.

Place the pan back over medium-to-med-high heat and add just enough oil to re-coat the bottom. Add the mushrooms (ideally, you won't crowd the pan...but don't stress too much if you do). Season the mushrooms with pepper only, cover, and cook 5 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Lift the lid, season lightly with salt, and add the butter to the pan, stirring to scrape up any browned bits and flipping the mushrooms to help them cook evenly. Cover and cook 5 more minutes.

Stir in the onions, cover, and cook 5 minutes. Season very lightly with salt, cover, and cook 5 more minutes.

Stir in the carrots and celery, season very lightly with salt and pepper, cover, and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the tomato paste and dried herbs and cook 1-2 minutes.

Increase heat slightly, add the wine, and stir to scrape up and incorporate any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the beef stock and short ribs (along with any juices or browned bits on the plate) and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat to med-low, cover, and gently simmer for 3-4 hours, or until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender.

To prepare the polenta, cut the corn off the cobs, and place the kernels in a skillet or saute pan over med-high heat along with the butter and a pinch of sugar (the longer your corn has been sitting around, the more sugar you are likely to need; if your corn is very, very fresh and in the peak of the season, you may not need any sugar at all). Season with salt and pepper. Cook 10 minutes, or until the corn is fragrant and some of the kernels are slightly browned, stirring occasionally to keep corn from adhering to the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, bring the beef stock, water, and a pinch of salt to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Slowly pour in the polenta, whisking as you pour. Be careful, as it has the tendency to bubble and spatter. Cook for 1 minute, continuing to whisk the whole time. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream cheese until smooth. Fold in the corn.
Finely chop the fresh basil and parsley.

Serve the short ribs, along with the sauce, over bowls of the polenta. Sprinkle liberally with the freshly chopped herbs.

Serves 4.
Thanks for reading. Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!

Monday, July 9, 2012


The Setting: A cool apartment in a summer heatwave.

The Soundtrack: The little washing machine that could--I swear I hear it chugging out, "I think I can, I think I can."

On the Stovetop: Wild mushroom tortellini.

The Scenario: I don't know what it's like where you are, but here in the DC area Temperatures are setting record highs, air conditioning units are shutting off because they just can't handle the heat, and "cooling stations" are popping up in churches and gymnasiums to give those without power a moment's sanctuary.

If ever there were a time for a frozen treat, this is it.

Jeni's BombeBasticks are the concession-stand sundae-cones you loved as a kid, all grown up and all from scratch--if, that is, you want them to be.

Make the cones, prepare the chocolate bombe shell, and whip up one of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams; or swap in store-bought components as you desire.

Top them with peanuts, pretzels, pumpkin seeds--whatever gets your mouth watering the most.

The following recipes are excerpted with permission from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home. My Notes are in red.

"Buttery handmade cones, artfully assembled with ice cream, and encased in Bombe Shell chocolate."

Chocolate Bombe Shell (page 200) (recipe follows)
6 small handmade Ice Cream Cones (page 203)
1 batch any flavor of ice cream
1/2 cup toasted nuts, pretzels, or other crunchy interesting bits

If the chocolate bombe shell is solid, melt gently in a hot water bath (fill bowl with very hot water and place jar of chocolate bombe shell in it), or pulse in the microwave for a few seconds at a time, stirring regularly. You don't want the chocolate to be too hot.

One cone at a time, pour about 1/4 cup chocolate into a cone and swirl to coat the interior.

Pour the excess back into the melted chocolate, and dip the top 1/2 inch of the cone into the chocolate. Set the cone upright in a tall glass and place in the freezer to harden. Repeat with remaining cones.

Soften the ice cream to a scoopable consistency. Remove one cone at a time from the freezer and place a scoop firmly on the top--you don't have to fill the cone, just squish it in really well at the opening. Return the cone to the freezer and repeat with the rest of the cones.

Allow to harden for 1 hour.

Coarsely chop nuts, pretzels, chips, or whatever you want to use and spread on a sheet pan.

Remove one cone at a time from the freezer and dip into the liquid chocolate, rolling to coat. Quickly roll in the nuts, if using, and return to the freezer. Freeze until firm.

Excerpted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer (Artisan Books). Copyright 2011.

Chocolate Bombe Shell
You know that Magic Shell you loved as a kid? Wait till you try the homemade version with real bittersweet chocolate and pure coconut oil!

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60% or greater cocoa), chopped
1/3 cup coconut oil I used unrefined, which has more coconut flavor

Combine the chocolate and coconut oil in a double boiler and heat, stirring frequently, until the chocolate is almost melted.

Remove from the heat and stir until completely melted and smooth. Let cool, then store, covered or in a jar, in the refrigerator. The chocolate will keep for up to 3 weeks.

To use the chocolate, you can melt it just by leaving it in a warm place--like the windowsill or the porch--for half an hour or so, then stir until smooth. Or scrape it into a bowl, set it in a larger bowl of very warm tap water, and let stand, stirring occasionally, until liquefied and smooth. You can also melt it in the microwave, heating it for 20-second intervals and stirring often, but be careful not to let it overheat.

Excerpted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer (Artisan Books). Copyright 2011.

Thanks for reading. Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry Ice Cream with Homemade Ice Cream Cones

The Setting: A dim but otherwise lovely apartment in the DC suburbs, decorated with a pitcher of flowers from my birthday and a smattering of baby paraphernalia...from life.

The Soundtrack: The same three chords pitifully squeaking out again and again as Oia's favorite musical book clings to its last breaths of battery life.

On the Stovetop: Quesadillas.

The Scenario: So far the flavors we've savored from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home have been fairly standard: Backyard Mint was a fresh take on an old standby, and while Kona Stout was a far cry from your average coffee ice cream, you could probably imagine ordering a scoop at your favorite brew-pub. Today, however, I bring you excitingly unexpected flavors that collide in a full-on scoop of summer.

This, my friends, is the blessed time of the year when bushels of sweet corn fill the floors of farmer's markets and produce departments, and fresh berries are cheaper than frozen.

This is the time for Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry Ice Cream.

A smooth, sweet base of fresh-corn-steeped cream is frozen in a standard machine and layered with a simple berry sauce to create a surprising treat that'll have you wishing it were summer all year long.

Of course, part of the childlike joy of eating ice cream in the summer is skipping the bowl and spoon in favor of the ever-portable, edible vessel, the cone.

Jeni's recipe produces a sweet and crispy cone good enough to stand on its own but even better when filled.

The batter is extremely simple, but an iron is required (these can be purchased from a variety of online sources and tend to be in the $25- $50 price range).

Jeni says her recipe will make 8 medium cones, but I've been averaging 14 small-to-medium-sized cones from one batch of batter using my 9-inch KrumKake Express, and the whole process takes 30-45 minutes.

Poolside parties and Slip 'N Slides will come to mind as your tongue reaches around the edges of the cone to catch those first drips of ice cream melting in the summer heat.

By the time you're licking your fingers and savoring the last crunch of cone, you'll feel just like a kid again...but with a slightly more elevated palate.

The following recipes are excerpted with permission from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home. My notes are in red.

Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry Ice Cream
"A sublime summer match--initial hits of milky sweet corn give way to the floral nose of sweet black raspberry." 

1 ear sweet corn, husked
2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
Black Raspberry Sauce (page 196) (recipe follows)

PREP  Slice the kernels from the corn cob, then "milk" the cob by scraping it with the back of your knife to extract the liquid; reserve kernels and liquid.

Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry.

Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Make sure the cream cheese is fully softened--microwave for 10-15 seconds if necessary--otherwise whisking it is nearly impossible, and it could cause your ice cream to be clumpy.

Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

COOK  Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar, corn and juices, and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and force the mixture through a sieve into a bowl, leaving the corn "cases" behind. Return the mixture to the saucepan and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

CHILL  Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes. You could refrigerate the mixture overnight at this point if desired.

FREEZE  (Snip the corner off your Ziploc bag and...) Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy.

Pack the ice cream into a storage container, alternating it with layers of the black raspberry sauce and ending with a spoonful of sauce; do not mix. Press a sheet of parchment paper directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Makes 1 generous quart.

Excerpted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer (Artisan Books). Copyright 2011.

Black Raspberry Sauce
2 cups raspberries, black raspberries, and/or blackberries I was unable to find black raspberries, so I used half red raspberries and half blackberries
1 cup sugar

Combine the berries and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Continue boiling, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 220 degrees F (5 to 8 minutes). I set mine on lower heat and let it cook a lot longer than I was supposed to (probably to the tune of 25 minutes), which made the sauce a little chewy. I actually found the texture rather pleasant, but it made straining out the seeds a major chore.

Let cool slightly, then force through a sieve to remove the seeds. (Or leave a few seeds in there just to prove you made it.) Refrigerate until cold before using.

Makes about 1 1/4 cup.

Excerpted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer (Artisan Books). Copyright 2011.

Ice Cream Cones

2 large egg whites
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2/3 cup all-purpose flour

Turn on the waffle cone iron.

Combine the egg whites and cream in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Add the sugar, salt, and both extracts and whisk for about a minute to combine well. Whisk in the melted butter. Add the flour, whisking only until the lumps have disappeared and the batter is smooth.

Make the cones in the waffle cone iron according to the directions for your iron. To shape the cones, follow the instructions on the next page (sorry, you'll have to get the book for that...but don't you want to get it anyway?). When you get really good, there should be no hole in the bottom of the cone!

These cones are best the day they are made, but they will keep for a week in a sealed container.

Makes 8 medium cones (4 to 6 inches tall and 2 inches across at the top).

Excerpted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer (Artisan Books). Copyright 2011.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.