Sunday, April 30, 2006

visions of salads dance through our heads

Mr. Tart and I have diligently prepared our vegetable garden and raised beds this spring, adding topsoil, soil amendment, mushroom compost, and our wedding manure (thanks Katie and Aaron!). We yanked out all of the winter's weeds and harvested the leftover spinach and green onions. He even built a gorgeous new raised bed with retaining wall stones--a home for raspberries. We noticed today that last year's strawberries even have little white flowers already! And this weekend I planted seeds that can handle cold weather (because we're certain to have more freezing temperatures before June here in Colorado): spinach, mache (lamb's lettuce), mesclun greens, arugula, sugar snap peas, green onions, and leeks. Yay!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where's the amazing food?

So I've started watching "The Amazing Race," my very first reality TV show. (Just in case you're not all familiar with it: teams of two race around the world following clues and completing tasks, with the team arriving last eliminated at the end of each show.) Now that it's down from 11 teams to only 5 to cover in the hour-long program, I had been hoping that we viewers would get to see more of each place that the contestants visit. I want to see them struggle with the language, miss buses, meet locals, have their credit cards unexpectedly rejected--you know, like the rest of us when we travel. But most of all, I've been eager to see what they eat in the likes of Perth, Oman, Moscow, Buenos Aires, and so on--but the show has been extremely stingy with the food shots. We glimpsed a Sicilian market once, baked lamb last week (in ovens dug into the desert sand) and candy bars this week, but that's all. How sad that this otherwise decent and engaging show is neglecting potentially fascinating cuisine!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

an avocado emergency

OK, so I bought a bag of 25 avocados for $5. At that price, can you blame me? The problem, of course, is that now I have 25 avocados. (Only about five are ripe right now, thank god.) I'm gonna need some ideas other than guacamole, and that's where you come in. Got any creative ideas?

I do hear that avocado makes a good hair conditioner. I just hope it doesn't come to that.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

trail food

Last weekend was the first backpacking trip of the year, my favorite marker of returning spring/ summer. Will and I cruised down south Friday afternoon for a 2-day, 20-miler up the Gulch to Lamanite Arch, one of the few easy hikes in the massive Escalante area (for the first trip out, you may as well take it easy). The location was selected in part because of length and ease, but primarily because of its proximity to Hell's Backbone Grill, a tiny restaurant in a tiny town that I adore. Hell's Backbone closes from November to mid-March, so I have been anxiously awaiting it's spring reopening. Hell's Backbone is divine. Boulder, UT, a town that barely registers on the map, sits at the edge of one of the most stunning and formidable wilderness areas in the country. The food is carefully prepared--fresh and refined, but not fussy at all. The owners try to buy locally as much as possible and pay attention to seasonal and sustainable foods.

We decided that a dinner at Hell's Backbone would taste better after two days on the trail, but I insisted that we at least stop by on Friday night for dessert. Will indulged me, so we shared a chocolate chili cream pot, and chocolate black pepper bread pudding with whiskey sauce before heading down the Burr Trail for a night of very windy car camping.

We lingered at camp late into the morning and finally strapped on our packs and headed down the trail at about 11 am. The day was lovely for hiking, the canyon still green and full of water in the early spring--but the setting is another matter altogether; what we care about is the food. Sadly, trail food is not quite as marvelous as dessert at Hell's Backbone, but the memory of our desserts and the anticipation of our dinner got me through two days of energy bars and nuts. We did have a reasonable dinner of couscous with shallots, carrots, and cashews.

On Sunday, as we made our way back to the trailhead, we barely ate at all because we wanted to save room for dinner. We hiked like mad and got back to the car with an hour to spare before our 5:30 reservation, just enough time to down a cold beer. And then dinner.

Luckily, no one cares what you dress like (or smell like) at Hell's Backbone--the real beauty of Southern Utah dining. The restaurant is small--a circular dining room encircled by wide windows which look onto Tibetan prayer flags, an organic garden, a long horizon of hills and cliffs. Every dinner at the restaurant begins with black powder biscuits and sage butter. Then we indulged in a local goat cheese fondue served with black pepper crackers and a variety of dried and fresh fruits.

For the entree, I had the blue cornmeal and pecan encrusted trout (the meal I've been waiting all winter for) and Will had lamb with orange-blossom brandy sauce (the Easter special)--of course, both the trout and the lamb were local. We shared bites and Will scraped up every bit of flesh on the trout.

Even though we had already indulged in dessert Friday night, we couldn't resist: another round of the chocolate whiskey bread pudding and an apple crumb cake with butterscotch sauce. The apple crumb cake was almost entirely butter and sugar and both made us want to lick the dishes clean (I will admit to running my finger along the bottom of the dish several times). And, of course, we filled up on coffee to keep us alert for our long drive home (including the near miss of a very large doe). Here is Will, delighted by his bread pudding:

Hell's Backbone is the perfect sort of restaurant--delicious food propelled to the transcendent by an ideal setting. The only worry I have about the place is that it will become too well-known for its own good. It gets a lot of attention and is frequently featured in a wide range of travel, lifestyle, and food magazines. I worry that one day they will care what I'm wearing and they won't take the time to care about their relationship to the local community and landscape. They deserve the attention they are getting, but I hope that they'll resist it all--just a little.

Friday, April 14, 2006

weekend wineblogging, and a damn fine pizza

I love my Fridays off. It's my day to kick back and go nuts in the kitchen in a way I can't do most of the rest of the week. For those who don't know, I work in the evenings, Sunday through Thursday, so I don't ever get to cook dinner like a normal person anymore. Friday is my day to do that.

And living in close proximity to a Trader Joe's -- and thus having access to awesome wine bargains -- means Friday night is usually also try-a-new-wine night. I think I have a new favorite varietal: petite sirah. (I read that it's actually not related to the syrah grape, hence the "sirah" spelling, but this label spells it "syrah," so I dunno...) Anyway, if you like big, big, larger-than-life reds, try a petite sirah. I could tell just pouring it that it was going to be massive -- it was deep, deep red, violet really, almost syrupy. So fruity, you half expect to get a black tongue drinking it, as if you'd been eating licorice. It's the dark chocolate of red wine. (Actually, speaking of, I think the flavor of this one had a bit of a chocolatey note to it.) All in all, not bad at all for a $10 wine.

Anyway, it was kind of drizzly and cool here today, so I felt like baking bread. I made wild mushroom and sundried tomato focaccia:
... and what I think might be the best pizza I've ever made. Wild mushrooms, asparagus, and red onion with three cheeses (fontina, Gorgonzola and grana padano parmesan), sprinkled with sage and arugula.

The basic recipe came from Epicurious, but I added the wild mushrooms and asparagus, and I'm glad I did because it would have felt a little too insubstantial without it, I think. It would've been glorified focaccia. But don't get me wrong, the recipe is a great one. Those three cheeses together were just magic. sigh.

And right after I started the dough, I thought, "Oh crap! I was going to try the crust recipe that Melissa posted a while back." I did a search for it on the blog and, lo and behold, the recipe she linked to was the very pizza I was making. :)

Anyway, Melissa, you're right! This crust is fantastic. Crispy, but still soft inside...much as I love my old standard wheat crust, I feel my loyalty slipping. I'll be coming back to this one for sure.

Oh! and also, here's a hint for what to do with strawberries that are a little too tart. Toss them with a little sugar, balsamic vinegar and -- this is the weird part, but you can't leave it out -- black pepper. It just sort of heightens all the flavors. Trust me. Let them sit for an hour or two, and you won't taste vinegar -- just a delicious syrup. That's what we had for dessert.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

not feeling friendly about friendship bread

At our latest themed dinner party (which I will blog about soon), Katie presented Cynde and me with gallon zip-loc bags of a yeasty-smelling dough and a recipe for Amish friendship bread, promising that it's really not that much work to take care of the starter and then turn it into delicious bread every 10 days. I dutifully followed the directions, producing one sweet loaf with pecans and one without (Mr. Tart doesn't like nuts in his desserts). I gave half a loaf to an elderly lady I had tea with that day, and had a piece or two every subsequent day myself, but a week later still had half a loaf left, rapidly becoming soggy on top. I toasted a few more slices and then gave up and threw the rest away. A two-person household can't eat two whole loaves of super-sweet bread in a week!

So now the time has come again to bake more friendship bread. I "fed" my four bags of starter with milk, sugar, and flour earlier this week, and today, "Day 10" according to the directions, is when I am supposed to make my two loaves (after setting aside some of the batter to create four new bags of starter). And--oops--I was supposed to give away three of my four bags of starters so that my friends and neighbors can bake bread too. But I didn't, and now I have four bags of vaguely alcoholic mush that must be baked today into eight new loaves!

Anybody want to make friendship bread today? Let me know quick!

Or, failing that, any ideas of what else can be done with this dough, other than the basic loaves or muffins? And are those frighteningly large quantities of sugar absolutely necessary? And, finally, will the Amish get mad at me if I hide the other three bags at the bottom of the trash?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Lyons and hot dogs and shakes, oh my!

Lyons, Colorado is a charming and active small town in between Boulder and Estes Park. Mr. Tart and I have driven through it several times on our way to the mountains, but recently we stopped in at its most famous restaurant: the proudly old-fashioned Lyons Soda Fountain, serving ice cream concoctions, soups and sandwiches, and baked goods.

As the welcome sign indicates, the Food Network has praised their ice cream, so even though snow was falling outside,

we ordered shakes with our meals. Er, malts, that is; the soda jerk (actually the owner--I just like saying the phrase "soda jerk"--it's so evocative of an era that disappeared before I was born) talked us into upgrading to malts. For me, choosing the flavor was the hard part. Look at all the options!

Toto, we weren't in Dairy Queen any more.

Mr. Tart had the chocolate raspberry malt, which boasted real whole fresh raspberries, while I almost chose the lemonade cream but then realized that I needed chocolate: the chocolate brownie malt. The owner told me that because it's so intensely chocolately, he's had to cut down on the amount of syrup he includes because it was too rich to finish! Isn't it gorgeous?

Although we probably could have filled up on ice cream, it was 11:30, so we ordered lunch. After all, when a soda fountain serves one, and only one, type of sandwich (and a whimsically-named one, at that), you may as well try it (and a soda) too!

Mr. Tart enjoyed his Hungry Lyons, one with cheese and one without. He reported that they were similar to sloppy joes but without the tomato-based sauce. I partook of the veggie dog with pickle relish and onion, along with a bowl of Tomato Garden soup that was as thick as chili.

And of course, Mr. Tart had a just-mixed root beer. (Other flavor possibilities included sarsparilla, mint, lime, and strawberry.) The infectious 50s music playing in the background made me want to throw on a poodle skirt and find a sock hop; even Mr. Tart started dancing in his seat!

The restaurant has been there for eight decades, but unfortunately much of it was destroyed in a fire years ago. However, they managed to save the stained glass over the bar, and I think next time we stop there I want to sit right there at the counter to people watch and chat with the owner. Yes, we know that we will

Friday, April 07, 2006

At institutional banquets, always pick the vegetarian

Why do I never remember this rule? I think I always feel a bit guilty asking for the vegetarian meal when I'm not really a vegetarian. It's as if I believe there is a finite number of vegetarian meals in the world and by asking for one I'm depriving the real vegetarians of their sustenance.

Tonight was my college's annual faculty dinner. I never expect a good meal at this dinner. I only go out of obligation. I should always eat beforehand, but I forget this (along with asking for the vegetarian meal.) Usually, I can hope that elements of the meal will be edible. But not tonight. Tonight we had this:

Thank goodness there was a camera phone at our table so I could share the lovely feast with all of you. Our server told us the dish was called "Caribbean Pork." The sauce tasted like a banana popsicle melted down and mixed with constarch and a bit of salt. I scraped up a few broccolli spears that hadn't been touched by the icky sauce. I was hoping that at least the dessert would be good. But no. I've had a better cheesecake from Jell-o. It's a sad thing when the best part of a meal is the iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

great popcorn requires great sacrifice

When I lived in Illinois and would make frequent sanity trips to Chicago, I was always intrigued by the long lines at Garrett Popcorn shops around town. There was always a line extending outside of the shop, down Michigan Avenue. Even on the coldest, windiest of Chicago days, there were always people dilligently waiting outside. My reaction was something like, "Are you kidding me? It's popcorn."

But since then, I've heard various raves and recommendations about Garrett's, so on a recent trip to Chi-town, I decided to stop in. I went to one off Michigan to avoid the long line, and on my first visit, I was set. No real line. A quick fix of caramel corn. Damn, this is good popcorn. Warm, sweet, salty, crunchy but melt-in-your-mouth. Because I was with friends and had to share, I of course had to go back later by myself.

My return trip was on a Saturday. When I walked into the tiny shop there was a line snaking through the limited space. I didn't know where the end of the line was, so I paused briefly to figure it out and two people forcefully stated, "Ma'am, the line ends over there." Nobody was letting me get in the way of their popcorn. Then, as I waited a woman towards the front of the line, prematurely stepped forward to claim her treat and the cashier scolded her, "Ma'am, stay in the line." It was like the Seinfeld soup nazi episode. But this popcorn is worth it. I know understand the willingness to wait in a long, long line in cold, cold weather.