Is It Spring?

Normally, I’m a red wine kind of gal, but National Margarita Day and unseasonably warm, spring-like weather has me craving cocktails and mixed drinks. I had set out to make a margarita one evening, but ended up making my favorite mojito instead. They are relatively low calorie and low carb. Not too much sugar and I use fresh ingredients. I have a weak spot for a well made mojito.

Muddle 1/4 lime wedges and 8 to 10 mint leaves in a glass.

Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of mint infused simple syrup,

1 to 1 and 1/2 shots of white rum and

a few dashes of Angostura Bitters (optional).

Fill glass 3/4 full with ice.

Top off with seltzer; then shake or stir well.

I’ve been experimenting with vanilla vodka. I bought some vanilla beans a few months ago to make my own vanilla extract and still have plenty leftover. I’ve been hearing a lot about vanilla vodka lately and thought I’d make my own. It’s the same method I use to make vanilla extract, only it takes a lot less vanilla and time. After a week to ten days it was ready for drinks, but two weeks later it was even better.

I have a long list of drinks I want to make with my vanilla vodka. I’m unsure about a few of them. I tried it with lightly sweetened tea. Not good. I rarely drink soda, but I have found a few small, local soda makers that use better ingredients. I mixed a shot of vanilla vodka with half a bottle of Uncle Scott’s Natural Root Beer (made in Mooresville, NC). Tasted like a root beer float and took me back to my first job at an ice cream shop in Eastland Mall. I also tried it with some old fashioned ginger ale (Blenheim, made in South Carolina, and Boylan made in NJ). Hello cream soda. Mmmmm… But because it’s so sugary, this drink is dessert. It’s a treat I won’t indulge in frequently.

Linsey had a request last week. She wanted barbecue and that was just fine with me. I couldn’t make it to the farmers market for our usual Grateful Growers pork shoulder, so I tried it with free range, organic chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s instead. I cooked it slow and low in lime juice, a little pomegranate juice, basil infused rum, garlic, salt and pepper. Then when it was fully cooked, I turned the heat up to let most of the liquid reduce down. The meat gets browned and caramelized and chewy on the outside. But after I used two forks to shred it, I knew it was too dry. Pork has lots more fat, and that’s why it makes such good barbecue. So I added several tablespoons of the pastured bacon lard, which I always have on hand and let it cook, low and covered for another fifteen minutes. The chicken was moist and tender, the way barbecue ought to be. It had a subtly different flavor which we all enjoyed. It was a nice change and a good experiment. I served it with roasted potatoes and cauliflower and my favorite sweet and sour slaw with fennel, onion, red peppers and cabbage.

Spring and warm weather makes me want to slow down. We’re not even into spring quite yet, and already I’m looking forward to long summer vacation days with no schedule to keep. The kids were out of school for two days a couple weeks ago. We spent one lazy evening making pasta, from scratch. Haleigh was bored and sulking because she’s grounded and couldn’t go with her sister and her father to run a few errands. Being a parent sucks sometimes. Even though the punishment was deserved, my heart hurt for her. So I let her roll out the pasta. I’ll admit that I didn’t think she’d have much success with this temperamental machine, but she cranked it out. She had fun. She got the hang of it quickly and had every right to be proud of that. And I was free to prepare the other ingredients. We enjoyed each others company. Cooking, talking and laughing with her in the kitchen like that was exactly how I envisioned it. There will be lots more meals prepared this way now that the girls are growing up.

This weekend time changes and the clocks spring forward. We’ll have another hour of sunlight in the evenings. It takes some getting used to. We’ll probably spend a lot of that time outdoors on sunny days, and we’ll inevitably lose track of time. I welcome those days.

Molasses Cookies, Royal Icing and Natural Food Coloring

The cookie jar is full.

No wonder we put on extra pounds every year during the holiday season. Last week it was apple cobbler, and this week it’s homemade gingerbread cookies. Sheesh! What is it about this time of year and homemade goodies? And I haven’t even gotten around to the dark chocolate peppermint bark and white chocolate coated popcorn yet. Maybe if we stop saving these homemade treats for the winter months and spread them throughout the year. Who says you can’t have peppermint bark in July? Why not make a couple of batches of cookies to share in the spring? I know the answer. Tradition. The girls and I look forward to cookie decorating during the holidays. We had hours of fun and there was no fighting and bickering for the duration. We all needed a break from the quarreling.

The cookies are Molasses Sugar Cookies and not gingerbread cookies, though I’m not sure what the difference is. The molasses cookies might be a little softer. But I found that if I cooked them a few minutes longer, they darkened and hardened a little. They were good either way, but the softer ones break easily. Click here for the cookie recipe. I used 2 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cups of all purpose, and instead of shortening I used 3/4 cups of leaf lard and 3/4 cups of real butter. Next time I’ll use all butter just because it tastes better. Refrigerating the dough for hours is not necessary if you just use cold butter in stead of melting it as the recipe instructs. I do refrigerate between batches and recommend it if you are planning to roll it out and use cookie cutters. The first two batches were rolled into  balls and half of those were tossed in sugar.

I refrigerated the rest of the dough overnight and we finished up the following evening. No sugar coating was necessary since we were going to cover them in icing and candy.

London’s cute little cookies were covered in globs of icing and carefully placed pieces of candy. Yummy.

Haleigh, a budding artist, let her creativity fly. She’s a neat little artist.

Linsey, a budding perfectionist, wanted to make sure icing was evenly distributed on her cookies. I have to say though, that the icing is the glue that is keeping her cookies from crumbling to pieces in the cookie jar. This cookie’s head fell off, but the rest is still intact.

Let’s talk about the icing. Royal icing is considered the best type for decorating cookies because it dries and hardens quickly. Some recipes call for meringue powder, cream of tartar or powdered egg whites – things I don’t normally have on hand. How about you? Here’s my simple and easy recipe:

Easy Royal Icing

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg whites
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or extract of whatever flavor you want to impart – lemon, peppermint, almond etc.)

Method:

  1. Beat egg whites in clean, large bowl or stand mixer at high speed until foamy.
  2. Gradually add sugar and lemon extract. Beat at high speed until thickened.

This made twice as much as we needed, so you might want to cut the recipe in half. Of course you can just use the white icing. Coloring isn’t really necessary since the candy is colored. We generally try to avoid artificial coloring. We did however have some artificially colored candy lying around so we used that, along with some mini-chocolate chips. But I don’t ever use or buy artificial food dyes. I attempted to try and color some of the icing naturally – purple, using juice from some frozen blue berries and pink, using juice from a large handful of pomegranate arils. (Who says Christmas cookies have to be red and green?) The results were not that great. I ended up with two shades of pale pink. Pretty, but not very vibrant. There are better ways, I know. But I was lazy.

And they were a little runnier, even though I added quite a bit more powdered sugar. My guess is that the acid from the fruit broke down the stiffness in the whipped egg whites.

Anyhoo, the girls loved the colors. My favorite are the ones with just chocolate chips. Chocolate chips and cookies belong together.

Play with Your Food.

You probably already know I love food, but cooking from scratch… is like playing with my food. When I was a kid I loved to get in the kitchen and play. Most everyone I know (including my kids) loved it too. I remember coating a spoonful of peanut butter in crumbled Oreos as a kid and thinking it was the best creation – ever! While the combination of Oreos and peanut butter still sounds pretty tasty, I can’t imagine eating that now. When you’re a kid, you’re limited to what your parents have stocked in the kitchen and to what appliances you are capable or allowed to use.  As adults, we don’t have these limits.

And here’s the icing on the cake. You learn so much when you cook from scratch. If you’ve always eaten something out of box you may not even know what’s in it or what cooking methods are used to make it. And believe me – you can find a recipe for nearly everything you can buy in a box or bag. Brownies are so easy to make from scratch, yet I never even bothered to look at a recipe until about a year ago. There are only a few ingredients, most of which anyone would already have in their pantry. I’ll never buy boxed brownies again. You’d be surprised how quickly you learn the basics of cooking when you start cooking from scratch. It’s often cheaper to buy the ingredients than it is to buy it prepackaged, and it’s better for you. It does take a little longer than opening a box, but that’s the best part. Really! When food is too easy to prepare (or already prepared), you tend to eat it more often and over indulge. When you slow down and take the time to make it yourself, you really learn to appreciate food. You eat slowly and savor every bite. You eat less and you get to control the quantity and the quality of the ingredients (and eliminate additives, preservatives and excess sugar). Cooking from scratch is gratifying and you might even lose a few pounds – effortlessly.

If the kitchen is my play ground, then the markets are my toy stores. I used to hate going food shopping. Now that the blinders are off, I find new things all the time. Sometimes I take them home to learn more. My favorite places to shop are off the beaten path – farmers markets, specialty markets and less common markets where you find things you’ve never seen before. I’ve learned what eating seasonal and local means and I’m so inspired by it.

Growing your own food seems like a quintessential part of life. Nurturing a plant and then (hopefully) eating the fruits of your labor restores a connection to food that has been lost in America. I’m still amazed at how disconnected this nation is to food. I recently walked through a small greenhouse display and the woman ahead of me was surprised to see how bell peppers grew. I don’t presume to know how everything grows, but I know how most of what I eat grows and I am curious about the rest. And I’m not suggesting we should all know where everything we eat comes from (or am I?).

Bell Peppers

Asparagus

Broccoli

Artichokes

Pineapple

Coffee is made from the roasted seed inside this berry.

Cacao Tree - Chocolate is made from the beans found inside these pods.

And playing with food is more fun when you do it with friends, family – even strangers. Involve them as often as possible. Nothing is more enjoyable than sharing a good time and good food with other people. This summer I plan to let the kids get in on the fun a little more. It’s not like they have anything better to do. Even London (3 years old)  can help.  Our schedule will be more relaxed which means meal times will be less hurried. They can help in the garden, the kitchen and with shopping, and we’ll learn even more together. Maybe by the end of summer, they’ll be able to help with dinner every night. Hell, maybe they’ll be able to cook an entire meal themselves! I’ll just sit back and have a glass of wine while they do it all. That would be nice. And fun for them I think.

Casarecce Pasta with Mascarpone and Sage-Walnut Butter, Peas, Broccoli and Kale

Casarecce

I had some mascarpone cheese that I’d bought a couple of weeks ago and have been trying to figure out what to do with it. Most recipes that call for mascarpone are desserts or sweet dishes and I knew I didn’t want to go that route. So I found this recipe (which actually came from A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop) and made it more nutrient dense by adding a ton of vegetables: fresh English peas, kale, chard and broccoli. I also used brown rice casarecce pasta (which I had never heard of before finding it at Healthy Home Market last weekend) instead of fettuccine to make it gluten free… and I substituted half the butter with bacon drippings leftover from breakfast. You can either use all butter or half butter and half bacon drippings, but I don’t recommend using olive oil, lard or anything like that. You’ll be sacrificing flavor. I doubled the sauce and cheese to make sure there was enough to coat the added vegetables.

Haleigh (my picky eater) loved it and asked for seconds. She didn’t mind that there was more veg than pasta and cheese or that there wasn’t any meat. Or maybe she didn’t notice because it all tasted so darn good. She loved the peas. She remarked that the pasta with the sage-walnut butter was good enough to eat by itself. But we all agreed that the mascarpone-Parmesan cheese mixture is what pushed this dish over the top. We’ll be making this again for sure. Here’s my seasonal, nutrient dense version:

Casarecce Pasta with Mascarpone and Sage-Walnut Brown Butter, Peas, Broccoli and Kale

  • 1 cup Mascarpone Cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 2 to 3 cloves of Garlic
  • 1 cup Kale (cooked) – I used a mixture of kale and chard from our garden, but you could substitute any greens.
  • 1 cup fresh Peas (or frozen) – I used fresh English peas from the farmers market and a handful from our garden.
  • Parsley, optional (from our garden)
  • 12 ounces Pasta – I used organic brown rice casarecce, but you can use whatever you have on hand.
  • 6 tablespoons Butter – I used 3 tbs salted Kerrygold butter and 3 tbs bacon drippings.*
  • 1 cup chopped Walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh Sage leaves
  • 1 bunch Broccoli

Method:

  1. Combine mascarpone, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper in small bowl and mix thoroughly with a fork until smooth. Set aside and allow it to come to room temperature.
  2. Prep veg: Cut up broccoli and kale; mince garlic, sage; and rough cut parsley.
  3. Start pasta water. I recommend adding a tablespoon of salt to the water.
  4. Steam broccoli, kale and peas separately (because they don’t cook at the same rate and to keep their flavors separate). You can do this anyway you like. I’m all about short cuts, so I used the microwave. Put a small amount of water (1/4 cup or less) in the bottom of glass dish with lid (like Pyrex). Preferably a vented lid, but you can just leave one corner open if you don’t have vented lids. I also like to add a little salt to the water for broccoli. The broccoli took 3 or 4 minutes (start with 2 minutes, then turn, stir or shake gently and add a minute at a time until it’s crisp tender and beautifully green). The peas and kale only took about 2 minutes each. Make sure you run the vegetables in cold water when they are done, to stop them from over cooking. Squeeze the excess water from the kale. Set aside.
  5. Once the water starts boiling and the pasta goes in, melt the butter (and bacon drippings, if you’re using) in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, walnuts and sage and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Drain pasta when done, then add it and the vegetables to the pan with sage-walnut butter. Toss and cook gently over low heat for a minute or two.
  7. Serve pasta with a dollop of the mascarpone-Parmesan cheese mixture and a sprinkle of parsley. Yeah, you could just mix the cheese and parsley in with the pasta, but hey – a little presentation goes a long way!

This dish is versatile, as most pasta dishes are. You can use any pasta and just about any vegetable in any amount (though you may need to increase or decrease the cheese mixture and butter sauce to account for the change). There was enough left over for Brian and I to have for lunch today.

I  tried really hard to get the kids involved, but in the end the only cooperation I got was from London. She helped me wash the vegetables.