Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Provence in dessert form

Ever since I recently discovered food-grade dried lavender at my local World Market, I've been in love with the stuff. So far, I've tried two desserts using lavender: honey lavender ice cream from the blog Very Good Things, and tonight, this lavender lemon pound cake from the pastry-chef-authored blog The Pastry Department (can I just say I love her banner graphic? Yay, salt caramel!)

My favorite thing about the ice cream was that it came out a very sunny Provencal yellow, especially nice with the flecks of lavender in there. The recipe doesn't have you strain the flowers out, and I'm torn on how I feel about that. I liked it presentation-wise, but the buds themselves had a slightly bitter flavor. I think lavender infuses itself into things well enough that you don't need to keep the buds in. Still, though, I'd make it again -- I'd just strain out the flowers before freezing the base. Also, the honey flavor was nice. I used a raw, unfiltered honey for the ice cream so that you'd really be able to taste it. And Mark brought me back some Tupelo honey from his trip to Florida that I can't wait to use in this recipe.

And, the pound cake. Okay, lavender steeped in melted butter=OHMYGOD. I have GOT to find ways to use lavender butter in other dishes. Imagine the possibilities...sigh. And I can't give a final verdict on the cake, as it's still cooling. But I did lick the batter bowl, so things are looking good.

kitchen alchemy: mujadarrah

There are lots of dishes that are more than the sum of their parts, but I can think of few that transform kitchen staples into something sublime quite like mujadarrah, a Lebanese comfort food made entirely of things I bet all of you have in your kitchen right now. It's rice, lentils, and caramelized onions, and that's about it. But it tastes like so much more.

I'm almost ashamed to admit that the recipe I use also calls for some garlic and cumin, and that's practically heresy. They really are strictly optional -- the key is the onions. Don't be shy about the caramelization -- I practically burn them for this dish. When blended with the other flavors, they'll work their magic.

And as with so many Middle Eastern dishes, there are as many variations as there are ways to spell its name. Mark even recently got an invitation to attend a mujadarrah cookoff! He tells me there's an Egyptian version that uses some sort of pasta instead of rice. I've had versions of mujadarrah where the rice and lentils keep their texture; Mark's aunt makes a version that's almost more like a thick spread (nice with pita and all the standard accoutrements: hummus, baba ghanoush, etc.). I like to let the lentils break down enough that it thickens the dish and sort of ties everything together.

4 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped; 2 onions sliced thinly
3 garlic cloves
2 t. cumin
3/4 t. allspice
2 cans vegetable stock (or one carton)
3/4 c. lentils
3/4 c. brown rice (you can also do white rice*)
salt/pepper to taste

Heat half the oil in saucepan. Saute chopped onion, garlic, and spices until the onion is soft and translucent. Add broth, rice, and lentils; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 40 minutes. Meanwhile, caramelize sliced onions in skillet in the remaining olive oil. Add caramelized onions to lentil/rice mixture; taste for salt & pepper.

Serve topped with plain yogurt.

*If using white rice: After sauteeing onions and garlic, add only the lentils with the stock; bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes. Then add rice, return to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

can it be true?

I grew up in an uninspired town. It has no town center, just one long row of chain stores and fast food joints. It does have some amazing mountains surrounding it, but the town itself is about as boring as a city can get. It is essentially a suburb without the urb. The town council was so worried about non-existent crime that they recently installed bright street lights on every corner making the entire town glow like a football stadium. My town is nicknamed "Family City, USA" in a mountain valley that everyone calls "Happy Valley." It used to be a town of fruit orchards, but most of those were gone by the time my family moved there. The last hold out just got shut down in order to widen an already very wide (and not terribly busy) road. There used to be a good mexican restaurant there, but that closed. It's certainly not a town known for its food.

And then I learn that there is someone making artisinal chocolate in my home town. What?! We're not just talking about a choclatier here, we're talking about someone making chocolate from bean to bar. In Orem, Utah? Amano chocolate has only been in production for about a year and only widely available (you can order on their website) for a couple of months. They currently make two single orginin bars: Madagascar and Ocumare. Even though they've only been around a short time, they are getting some good press.

And how does the chocolate taste? Both bars have a clean and crisp break. The two bars have very distinct flavors: citrus for the Madagascar and mint for the Ocumare. The Ocumare is pretty amazing; it's surprising that the beans themselves can have such a minty undertone. At $6 for a 2 oz. bar, the chocolate probably wouldn't be my choice for baking projects (I'll stick with my standby Scharffenberger for that), but for general eating and chocolate bliss Amano may be a new favorite. The chocolate is a little spendy, but how can I resist near-perfect artisinal chocolate from my home town?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

have you ever grilled a salad?

When dining with Mr. Tart and his parents at Panzano last week, taking advantage of the Denver Restaurant Week promotion (two prix fixe meals for $52.80), we were a little doubtful of the appellation "grilled Caesar salad." I mean, come on, you don't grill lettuce. Maybe you grill other vegetables like carrots and mushrooms and put dressing on them, but then it's not really a "caesar salad," now is it? I figured that for this restaurant's version, the croutons were grilled instead of baked or fried.

But I was wrong!

The lettuce was grilled!

And it--and the whole salad--was amazing. The chef had taken the heart of a head of romaine lettuce, leaving the leaves attached to the stem, and cooked it over a wood fire so that some leaves were singed, some were smoky, but most stayed crunchy. The dressing was a little tart, a lot creamy, and just salty enough--it definitely didn't come out of a bottle--and then the single anchovy sunbathing on top tasted like rich, soft salt more than it tasted of fish. Shaved parmesan decorated the plate and the romaine balanced on a grilled sliced of garlicky peasant bread. It was without question the best caesar salad I've ever experienced! As soon as the snow melts off our deck, we're going to try to repicate it at home with our gas grill.

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