Once More Unto the Breach: Parmesan Herb Muffins

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

-"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead" (King Henry V, Act 1, Sc. 3, 1-2). It's actually a pretty appropriate quote if you're one of the seasonal workers that Best Buy hired this year.-

"So here's the plan: Be sure to get to bed early tonight because we'll begin operations at 0300. Arrive at destination at 0400. Our chart has already been mapped out and the target items identified. This will be an in and out operation. No side tracking. No extra stops. We want to make this as fast and painless as possible, got that?"

"Right," replied Janelle. "I'll put some muffins in my purse now so we'll have something to eat."

"Excellent. All right, see you in the morning," I replied.

I hung up the phone. Operation: Black Friday was go. For the most part I avoided this unofficial holiday; a holiday when humanity abandoned all concepts of fair play, cordiality, and pleasantness and became worshippers to the cult of consumerism (at a new, unheard of low price!).

I usually started my Christmas shopping somewhere in September, but that doesn't mean I wasn't picking things up all year round. If I saw something in a store that just seemed absolutely perfect for someone I would just get it then and there. Once home I would hide it in my closet and stick a little label on it in case I forgot who it was for. By December 1st, my shopping was usually complete.

However, only days ago, I had read in a newspaper ad that black pashmina scarves were going to be on sale in one of the department stores at the mall. It was something I knew my mom had been wanting for a few years now but had never seemed to find one that was high quality and affordable. The scarves advertised were Hermes. Black Friday sale price: $100. Completely and totally unheard of. It seemed that I would have to brave Black Friday.

-Lucky for you, you can get these things at great deals even when it isn't Black Friday.-

I had heard the tales of Black Friday. The insanity and carnage. People abandoning all appearance of civility in order to get what they wanted. If these people were crazy enough to camp in front of a Best Buy all night, then it was doubtful they would have any compunctions about shiving you in the kidney for the last flat-screen television at %75 off the sticker price. People got trampled to death at Black Friday. Think about that. People died in the pursuit of Christmas shopping. That's messed up.

I knew that to brave the war zone alone would be foolish, so I called my best friend Janelle and asked for her to assist me. Fortunately for me the GameStop was having a sale on a new video game and the company that made it had expressed last week that their production wasn't going to meet demand that holiday season. She knew that there would have to be blood over this and she was damn sure it wouldn't be hers. She was in.

It was 40 degrees outside and still dark when we arrived at the mall at exactly four in the morning. Surprisingly, the lot wasn't as filled as we had expected it to be. Given, it was 1997, and the Black Friday mania hadn't quite taken the hold it has today. In fact, this was the first year that the mall had advertised that many of its stores would be opening this early. Regardless, Janelle and I steeled ourselves for the fight.

The plan was simple: get inside to the first floor of Nordstrom and split up to look for the scarves. Once one of us found them we would grab one and call the other via cell phone. The other would meet up with the finder so we could affirm that the target had been acquired. Afterwards, we would eat our muffins as we moved through the throngs of people to get to GameStop for the video game. Once all missions were accomplished, hopefully by 0500, we would leisurely go for Breakfast at Denny's for a plate of Moons Over My Hammy.

We arrived a minute or two after the doors had open. Again, this wasn't the Black Friday craze we're used to seeing on the news where people are literally trampled to death. However, the crowds were thick and moving through them was tedious, it reminded me of leaving a sports stadium or concert theater after a huge event. You can't really move on your own but, rather, you pulsate and meander in a specific direction as one part of the crowd. You're no longer an organism of your own, but a cell of a bigger one.

-Another option: Allow the muffins to go stale and then use them to strike other shoppers in the head to gain a competitive edge.-

Janelle went off one way and I another. I did my best to cut my way out of the crowded department store pathways and weave through the racks where there were fewer people. Before I could go far I could hear Janelle calling me. She had found the scarves far faster than I had expected either of us to do so. I found my way towards her, dodging old ladies and irritant tweens, and past a pile of Calvin Klein denim to a stack of black Hermes scarves.

"Sweet! That was easier than I anticipated!" I picked one up and looked at my prize.

Suddenly another hand grabbed at it, "I need that!" I looked up and saw a prim woman in a knit hat, shawl, and obviously pricey winter wear that I assumed she picked up not from any high-end department store but from the shops of the actual designers. Her face was a little worn and was done up as well as anyone can put on makeup to cover the fact that they woke up at three in the morning.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"He was already holding it," huffed Janelle in my defense.

"I saw it first. It's mine," the woman demanded.

"Okay, lady, no. I already had it in my hand. Also, if you look down for a moment you'll see there are still plenty left on the table," I replied. I did my best to give her my I-will-punch-you-in-the-throat stare, but at eighteen I still hadn't perfected it yet. Still, she backed off and looked down at the table where a messy pile of black cloth was quickly reducing under a tangle of fast hands.

She turned, grabbed one, and left without apologizing. She had been caught up in the Black Friday zeal and was now under the sway of greed and consumerism. I was always under the impression that it would take war or a zombie apocalypse for people to start acting like crazed lunatics. Turns out that Christmas shopping can do it too.

Wasn't this supposed to be a season of good will and cheer?

-Cheese and herbs are a good way to arm yourself against in the merchandise fueled holiday armageddon.-

I made my purchase. Janelle and I whisked ourselves off to the game store where we nabbed the last copy of the game. (This, incidentally, caused the teenager behind us to actually throw a fit at the department store clerk who had helped us.) As we made our way out of the store Janelle whipped out the muffins from her purse. They possessed the dull, one-dimensional, cold taste of muffins bought from a big box store. Still, they were fuel. We looked into each store as we passed by and watched as people frantically grabbed and clawed at, well, everything. We even witnessed a verbal fight break out as we passed a shoe store.

We laughed and pointed, and made snide comments. We critiqued how the world had fallen into such disarray in the way that teenagers who think they know better than everyone else in world often do. Of course, we realized we weren't much better. We had gotten here earlier than most of the people in the mall. What did that say?

These days I do most of my shopping the same as before. I purchase items throughout the year that I think would be perfect for others. I make jams and jellies as gifts. I'm probably Amazon's best customer. I refuse to go into the mall come between late-November and all of December. It's insane to do otherwise. I'd rather point and click at home.

The muffins I make for these arduous online shopping runs are much better as well. Nothing mass produced or uninspired. They're simply tasty morning muffins. Filled with herbs and grated Parmesan they're bright and nutty. The cheese melts on the top and forms a delightfully, slightly crunchy crust. Smeared with butter these perky muffins are an appropriate shopping food be you braving the stores or shopping from the couch.

This year, as I watched the news reports of more injuries people incurred from rushing stores as they opened the doors, I ate my muffins in peace. I looked down at my computer screen and clicked "Proceed with my purchase."

"Well, that's done." I muttered to myself, ripping off another piece of basil scented bread and popping it into my mouth. "I should really send Janelle this recipe..."

Parmesan Herb Muffins
I've used both dried and fresh herbs for this recipe. If you use fresh then use maybe 1/2 teaspoon more of the herbs.
Makes 12

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon basil, chopped
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1-1/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil

1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a muffin tray with paper cups.

2. Whisk together the flour, Parmesan, sugar, thyme, rosemary, basil, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. In another bowl whisk together the buttermilk, oil, and egg. Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture. Mix together until gloppy and all ingredients have just come together.

3. Spoon into baking cups and bake for 20-22 minutes. Cool in pan on a wire rack for a minute or two. Serve immediately.

-"It's dangerous to go alone! Take this," (The Legend of Zelda). Also an appropriate quote.-

That Christmas Cheer in Late-November: Chipotle Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

-Classic gingerbread cookies with a delightful, Mexican-inspired kick of chipotle chilies.-

I went out and bought a Christmas tree today. Not a live one, but a good quality fake one. To be honest, I prefer it that way at the moment.

I grew up going to the tree lot every winter with my family and getting a real one. We would go the day after Thanksgiving while everyone else was at the mall fighting to the death over Tickle-Me Elmos and half-price cashmere pashminas. My brother and I would race down the tight coniferous alleyways, slapping into branches and inspecting every Douglas and Blue Spruce in order to find the fattest, tallest, and fullest tree we could. Eventually, we would find it and call over our parents to come see and approve. Then the tree would be hogtied and strapped to the roof of our car. Dad would set it up inside and we would all begin the lavish decoration.

However, these days my dad isn't here to do the heavy lifting. He also isn't crawling under the tree to water it every morning. My mom isn't vacuuming up the fallen needles or cleaning up the bits of tinsel the cat has thrown up. Honestly, I don't have the energy for any of that. It's a pain in the ass.

Personally, I love a good fake tree that can be stored in the closet during the year and be propped out during the holidays. These days you'll find that a high quality fake tree is nearly indistinguishable from a real one. It's almost shocking. My mother went and got a fancy one that, swear to God, unless you touch it with your fingers you would never know it didn't grow in the ground from humble little seed. Given, I do miss coming into a room on a cold morning and having it smell like winter in the high Sierras, but it's a sacrafice I am willing to make.

-The smell of these cookies is just as good as the scent of fresh pine.-

And, yes, I am aware it's November and that it isn't even Thanksgiving yet. I grew up putting the Christmas decorations early so it seems natural to me. I'm like WalMart, I begin to think of stringing up lights and mistletoe before the Trick-or-Treaters have even knocked on the door. BF hates it, but that's his business. At least, there aren't fuzzy, Santa-faced toilet seat covers in the bathroom. Not like when I was a kid. It was like Chris Kringle hosted a Yuletide orgy at our house. Candles, bells, crystal angels, throw pillows... we went all Christmas'd out. I loved it.

Now that all the kids are out of the house both mom and dad do it a bit more tasteful now. Christmas chic. Martha would be proud of Mom's giant tree covered in white lights and designer ornaments and ribbon in gold, cream, and mauve in its many tasteful shades that I didn't know mauve had.

Of course, the reason I had to buy a tree at all this year was because of the fire. It's the only thing I hadn't replaced yet. The fire had happened two days after Christmas so the tree had still been up. It was also a fake one, a high-quality one, with the ornaments and garland in a trendy color scheme of key lime, navy blue, and teal, which I was ecstatic over for the fact that it matched my living room. When I wandered into the wreckage the next day I found my tree smashed onto the floor. Bent and broken, then firemen had knocked it over and in order to get upstairs had continued marching over it. I don't blame them as they were just doing their job, and a plastic tree isn't something they're going to concern themselves with when the roof is on fire. Anyways, everything was destroyed that night and the tree was just another casualty.

As I stood there in the husk of my old home, the carpet black and wet from ash and melted water pipes, I carefully bent down through the wrecage and moved some of the collapsed ceiling off of the tree. I found that a few of the ornaments were still intact. Somehow, miraculously, these big delicate objects had survived the carnage. I picked up one of the big teal glass balls and blew some of the debris and dust off. A little rub and it was shiny as ever, and I could see my fisheyed reflection looking back at me.

-If you want, you can also poke a tiny hole into each cookie and hang them from your tree as ornaments.-

I hurled the ball as hard as I could against the nearest wall. The explosive pop was exciting. The shards tinkled in the air, like diamond dust, and fell to the ground with a hushed applause. I picked up another and hurled it too. And the next one. I laughed as each one burst like a miniature fireworks. My own little bombastic display. It was fun, and I laughed with each one.

It was cathartic. I guess. I'm still not sure what I was thinking then. I know that part of it was enjoying the simple act of wanton destruction. In that roofless room it didn't really matter what I did. I could be a small engine of pure ruination. I reveled in the sound of each delicate sphere crushing into a cloud of colored dust and cheap glass. It felt great to be so damn careless.

How often do we really get to experience something like that? Probably not often enough.

Normally, I wait until after Thanksgiving to put up a tree. This year, I did it earlier. The tree was the last part of putting my life together as it once was. Maybe, I'm just poorly psychoanalyzing myself but that's how it feels. This year, I just needed the tree up and I needed it now.

-Quite spicy, these are best served with a tall glass of milk.-

Still, part of Christmas for me isn't just the tree in your home or the people you enjoy it with. It's also the food. Not every year, but some, my family would make gingerbread cookies. One or two would get decorated and I would pierce the top of the cookie with a ornament hook and hang the cookies on the tree. Edible decorations that added the scent of spiced bread to the room. I loved those ornaments, but I loved the cookies that we saved to eat even more. (We also lost a freshly made plate of cookies in the fire. Ugh.)

These cookies are an adult version of the classic gingerbread cookie. Something a bit more daring and adventurous. A cookie for those with a trendy tree who want to take a small step outside of the traditional holiday treats. This gingerbread cookie is spiced with a hint of chipotle chili powder, a small suggestion I picked up from renowned rock-n-roll baker, Elizabeth Falkner. The chipotle adds another layer of heat and a slight smokiness that enlivens the gingerbread and warms the palate.

The base recipe comes from Kate Washington, a local food writing celebrity here in Sacramento. She, in turn, got it from a random woman named Mrs. Morrissey, whom she met in line in a grocery store. Encouraged that this was the best recipe ever, Mrs. Morrissey gave Kate her address and told her to stop by her home and pick it up. Kate did, and she has never used anything since. I can see why too, it's a flavorful cookie with a snappy texture. A perfect cookie for lighting up the holidays (you know, in a good way).

Chipotle Gingerbread Cookies
Makes 4-6 dozen, depending on size of the cookies.

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
1 egg, beaten to blend
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a stand mixer cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in molasses and egg, being sure to scrape down the sides and bottom, until light and uniform.

2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices. Mix in the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until the entire thing comes together in one uniform batter.

3. Divide the dough into two equal parts and put them on a swath of plastic wrap. Roughly form each piece into a disc. Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for three or more hours. The dough will still be somewhat soft for a chilled dough.

4. Preheat oven to 325F. Generously flour a flat work surface and the dough and roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick; cut into shapes and place on a cookie sheet, preferably lined with parchment paper. Bake for 12-15 min; do not let brown. Cool on the sheets for a minute or two before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

-A little fiery kick to help one finally recover from a fire.-

Good Dates and Bad Dates: Date-Nut Bread Recipe

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

-A good cure for a bad date. Though giving the date a swift kick to the shin is equally good.-

There had been a few warning signs, sure, and normally I would have ended the date by now. However, when your friends chastise you for being too damn picky you have to try your best to be a bit more tolerant. Then again, when you first meet someone its hard to tell what parts of a person are simply quirks and what might be the characteristics of a wacked-out, Xenu worshiping, has a skin suit sewed from his victims psychopath.

I had only ended a four year relationship about ten months before and had recently decided that it was time to put myself out there and see who the world had to offer. Of course, it had taken a while to get to a point where dating felt right again. Well, as right as dating ever can feel. I had learned a few months earlier that I wasn't ready when I had gone out to meet a friend for lunch and catching up. It was a semi-date of sorts. We had been friends for seven years and always had a mutual attraction towards each other. Considering that we were both now single we decided to give it a shot. The semi-date ended when in the middle of getting to second base on my couch I broke out into a bout of uncontrollable sobbing. Hardly a turn on, but definetly a sign that at the time I wasn't ready to move on.

A few months later, sobbing and emotions now in complete control, I was ready to broach the dating scene. I was all spiffy and raring to meet the men this time. I was slick in some new clothes, had begun to style my hair a bit differently, and began to embrace some aspects of my old social life that had been yearning to breathe in my claustrophobic relationship the past few years. I was ready to conquer the world, or so I said in my online dating profile.

Of course, I learned quickly that most online meet-up sites simply aren't gay relationship oriented. In fact, probably about 99% of them are geared towards finding a guy in the closest proximity who is looking to get off. I found that using these sites weren't conducive to finding someone who likes long walks and isn't tied down, as much they were to finding guys who like long shlongs and being tied down with rope. Not that that wasn't useful some nights.

-Deglet Noor dates have a delicious root beer flavor and are perfect for baking. Brown sugar-y Medjool dates are more widely available though.-

Still, the dating scene wasn't exactly filled with hopeful prospects, like cracking open eggs and finding each and every one rotten inside to the point where you dread the foul possibilities contained in the next. Sure, there would be the occassional date where there was simply no connection. A fine situation I simply accepted, though I was fortunate enough that a few of those people are now good friends.

Then there would be the ones where after a few dates I realized it wasn't going to work. I admit I was an ass in those situations as my usual tactic was simply to completely cut off all lines of communication. This meant never returning calls, e-mails, or text messages. The person simply stopped existing to me.

It was only after a guy I was interested in did the same to me that I realized how much it hurt. Not like a sharp sting when someone simply ends it or turns you down at a bar, but a dull pain like a day-old bruise, purple and mottled. I vowed from then on to always end things in person.

Every so often there would be a truly bad date. At a food conference in Napa my friend Ashley had planned to set me up with a friend of hers at an exclusive after party. It would be my first blind date and while I was eager and nervous, and though all my gut instincts told me to tell her no, I went along with it. After all, shouldn't everyone experience the social phenomenon of the blind date at least once in their life?

The answer is no. No, everyone shouldn't. The guy was nice enough but after three minutes we realized that we had absolutely nothing in common and nothing to speak about, nor were we physically attracted to one another. As it was, we both spent the next three hours doing our best to socialize at the complete opposite corners of the very tiny room.

Of course, there were other bad dates. Many bad dates. So many that at one point I had decided to never go out again. I would raise my standards so high that they would put Japanese high school entrance exams to shame. This was both good and bad. It was good in that the number of bad dates I went on reduced dramatically. However, it was bad in the fact that I now became almost impossible to please.

My friends pointed out that I was being a bit impractical. It was unfair to not call a guy back because he had a bad haircut. Possibly, it could have been cruel to dump someone over the fact that they didn't know what the capital of South Korea was, a factor I interpreted as not being geopolitically aware. Maybe it was mean to end a date early with a lie that my dad was in the hospital because my date insisted that the Spice Girls were overrated during the nineties. (I'm still not willing to bend on that one. A boy has his standards.)

-Perfect in the morning with some English Breakfast tea.-

To quell the insistent lecturing of my friends I decided to be a bit more lax. I would lower the bar a bit and maybe pass some people that I might otherwise reject. Plus, I realized I really was being a bit too finicky and cooking for one was beginning to get a bit tiresome as leftovers truly do lose their charm after you start eating the same curry for the fifth day in a row.

His name was James, the date in question that started this post. We had met through a mutual acquaintance at a party and after some time chatting he asked me out. James was an event planner and he wrote the astrological forecasts for the local paper. To me both of these were red flags. At the time I considered event planner as simply a job that one developed after graduating college in Communications. (A wedding planner friend of mine has proven me quite wrong in this regard.) As for his firm belief in astrology, well, I have trouble believing that giant balls of gas billions of light years away that sort of make a shape if you squint and use your imagination have any feasible bearing on the condition of your life, and that basing your decisions on them is silly at the least and irresponsible at best.

Putting my first impressions aside however, I decided to go out on the date. James seemed nice enough and he was handsome in an outgrown hipster sort of way with his over-bleached hair and jeans so skinny they looked like they were his natural skin.

He arrived to pick me up from my apartment and surprised me with a few gifts. A bundle of incense sticks and a hexagonal mirror covered in Chinese symbols. Again, red flags to me, as anything that remotely resembles what my dad would call "out there ideas" like healing crystals or UFO trackers seemed a bit too crazy hippie to me. However, I realized that both were just kind gestures. These were a personal and new age bouquet of flowers. I was touched, if not a bit confused, and thanked him for the gifts. I put the mirror, apparently one specially designed in a feng shui manner, above the door in order to block negative chi. I secretly gave the incense to my roommate as incense smoke often made me sneeze uncontrollably.

-Thankfully, I no longer have to date anymore. Nowadays, I just have to try and get BF to stop playing video games long enough to help me clean the apartment.-

As we were about to leave he asked to excuse himself for a moment. Wondering if I had done something to scare him off he insisted that he just had to have a quick smoke and I told him he could use the patio outside. He thanked me, went outside, and, rather than open a pack of cigarettes, he proceeded to whip out a pipe and a bag of hash and quickly huffed down a bit of Hawaiian Skunk. A strain, he told me later, that could run $120 an ounce.

This would normally have ended the date right then and there. Honestly, I don't care if a person smokes tobacco or marijuana. However, I consider smoking a bowl right in front of your date to be just plain rude. I doubt such a situation is covered in any guide on etiquette, but I was sure that Emily Post wouldn't have approved his actions.

We went out to dinner, a nice place for Moroccan food in downtown Sacramento that I had always wanted to go to. As we talked we began to chat about our jobs and hobbies and all the stuff you go on about when you first get to know someone. All seemed to be going well and I had put the minor reefing incident aside and decided that maybe this wouldn't be so bad.

That was until he excused himself again. "Bathroom?" I asked.

"Just going to smoke another bowl real quick in my car," he replied.

"Oh! Uh, okay."

What else could I say? So I waited by myself at the table. I sat down and began to nibble furiously at the plate of dates that we had ordered. It was, I think, the first time I had ever really eaten them, as an adult. My dad chopped them up into oatmeal when we were kids but I never really focused on their flavor before. I marveled at the silliness of eating dates on a date, but was more intrigued with their butterscotch aroma and root-beer flavor. These particular dates had been filled with cheese and wrapped in bacon, then quickly grilled so that their sugar caramelized to compliment all the salt. I doubted if this was authentic Berber cuisine, but I was happy none the less and the dates took my mind off my date's absence.

He came back, a little more pungent than before and we continued eating and talking. Twenty minutes later he excused himself again. Just for a quick joint he told me.

-I had another bad date once where the guy's boyfriend called him in the middle of our dinner. I just got up and left after that.-

All and all he ditched me eight times to go smoke out in his car. This wasn't simply someone who smoked every now and again; this was full-on, hardcore addiction. Most smokers can go an entire meal without having to break for a cigarette. This guy was huffing down pot like there was a pot of gold at the end of each roach.

When I asked him about it he got defensive. I let it go and tolerated the rest of the awkward meal. Once the check was paid I requested that he take me home and that I drive since I simply didn't feel safe with him behind the wheel. After a small argument that ended with him walking into a glass door, he handed me his keys and I drove his ancient Ford Pinto back to my place. At home I thanked James for a lovely dinner but explained that I didn't think this would work out. He called me stuck up and left. I assume to buy more pot.

My roommate creeped out from his room after hearing the commotion and asked how the night went. "Not a total loss," I replied. "That date may have sucked, but I found plenty more that I can't wait to have again."

The following morning I went to the store and picked up some dates and began to cook and bake with them with vigor. They seemed to cure my dating woes and spice up my meals, giving them a richness I never knew they lacked before. Chicken cooked with lemon and dates, date and buttermilk pie, and good old fashioned date-nut bread. A simple comfort that helped adjust me to what seemed might be a longer single life than I had imagined, and that was okay.

However, it seemed the mirror was helping out a bit, too, as the number of bad dates I had dropped dramatically. I guess there is something to reflecting all that bad chi. Well, and the bad dates.

Date-Nut Bread
This recipe is from the ever effervescent Dorie Greenspan, who is as sweet as the dates used in this bread. I have yet to find a better recipe for date-nut bread. This came from her epic tome, Baking: From My Home to Yours.

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup dates, chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325F. Grease and flour a 9X5 loaf pan and place the pan on an insulated baking sheet.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

3. Beat together the butter and cream cheese for 2 minutes on medium-high until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for a minute each. Add the extracts and beat another 30 seconds. The mixture will look curdled but don't fret. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture. Mix together until just combined. Fold in the dates and nuts and turn into the pan.

4. Bake for 40 minutes. Then cover the top loosely with a foil sheet and bake for another 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before taking the loaf out of the pan and cooling completely. Best the next day once the flavors have melded.

The Company You Keep: Kiwi-Lemon Jam Recipe

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

-A simple Saturday breakfast without a side of crime.-

We’re judged by the company we keep. Some may argue that it’s unfair that we be ancillary critiqued based on the actions and words of those we associate with. However, it stands to reason that if we willingly befriend people who can hardly be considered upstanding, then we too must be. Why else would we be friends with people unless we we approved of their actions or behavior? We pick our friends because they possess traits we enjoy and admire. Judging someone by the company they keep, then, is completely practical.

Shortly after turning eighteen and graduating high school I found myself at UC Davis for freshmen orientation week. It was a chance to familiarize myself with the campus and its resources, take placement exams, and learn how to pick classes using the incredibly complicated class guide. More importantly, it was a chance to socialize and make friends. Most everyone was coming from all corners of California, others from various other reaches of the U.S., and a few from overseas. People from practically every race, gender, religion, sexuality, ability and so on were present causing some people to engage with individuals of certain communities whom they had never interacted with before. It was week of social mixing and everyone was a little awkward.

-Kiwis are best when their skins are wrinkled and the fruit is dark green. November is the season for them so hit up the Farmer's Markets. I got 3lbs. for $3.-

Of course, the first person I bonded with was my assigned roommate for the week in the dorms. I can’t recall his name but I recall my interactions with him and the people he quickly associated with and, thus, I associated with. They all seemed normal enough. We spent the first night at the dining commons talking about our potential majors and backgrounds. Who had a girlfriend, if we thought we placed well in the chemistry placement exam, and if there was a decent coffee house nearby were all fair topics. Nothing anyone would red flag.

The group seemed normal enough, though we seemed to have established ourselves as the popular kids (I understand now that no such thing exists on a college campus) and as expected began to act in condescending manner towards the other students. Nothing extreme or too offensive, more along the lines of picking out who was wierd and making a point to convince every other freshmen how that person should be shunned else their new collegiate reputation be tarnished.

Having been one of the super-weird people in high school who had been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment - I played the flute in marching band and founded the anime club - this should have been the first warning. Still, I was in a new environment and, gosh darn it, I wanted to find some friends and fit in. If some poor shmuck with a bad haircut who climbed trees in the middle of our campus tour had to suffer our roundtable mocking, so be it.

-Buttered bread is equally tasty. Either way, though, you'll end up snarfing it down like a starving wolf.-

Later that night we ventured into downtown not looking for anything in particular. We eventually meandered into a convenience store for what I assumed was something to drink. It was dark out and I had no idea where in the town I was so more than anything I was just trying to get my bearings.

I have an intense need to know exactly where I am at all times in foreign places, and not having a map I was more concerned with landmarks, star positions, and street names than whatever the others were doing. While downtown Davis is set up as a grid, if you aren't familiar with the town every block looks exactly the same. Compound that on top of the fact the campus itself was a strange maze of mismatched and awkwardly placed buildings and that it was dark out I realized I was totally lost. I certainly wasn’t paying attention to what anyone was buying or, in this case, not buying.

The group moved out back to the street and we meandered over to what seemed to be a park.

“Walk faster,” said my roommate in hushed panic. I just looked at him curiously.

“Why? We don’t have to be back for a while.” I looked up ahead to the rest of the group and called out, “Hey, does anyone know where the hell we are?”

“Dude, shut up!” hissed the guy with the punk-look ahead of us, pink hair in spikes and boots that looked like the belonged to The Starchild. I couldn’t recall his name, and had begun to address him as Punky.

This was the point when I knew something was up. It was the same feeling you get when you find a letter in the mail that can only be bad news, or that split second after you hear your car make a sound that you unequivocally know will cost you $300 to fix.

“Dude, hurry up!” said my roommate. He, Punky, a blonde girl, and the German guy we met a lunch began picking up speed.

Suddenly, a few blocks away, we saw a police car turning the corner.

“RUN!” someone called.

So, I ran. The reaction was automatic. If someone suddenly yells “Heads up!”, you look up and brace for falling objects. If you see people crowding around on the street, you’re likely to investigate in order to see what's going on. Humans are creatures that are good at following the pack and taking directions in a primal sense, especially when our brains tell us it’s for self-preservation. So, I ran. I took off like scared teenager in a horror film, which wasn’t too far from the truth.

-This should be the first lesson in orientation.-

We were in the park by now and there was zero lighting nearby thanks to the City of Davis’ aggressive light pollution policy. (You can see the stars, just not the serial rapist hiding in the bushes ahead.) Following the lead of the people in front of me I leaped over a stone wall and took cover, flattening myself against the ground. The others were doing the same, all of us still as statues and no one breathing a word for fear that the slightest whisper would sound like a siren. A few minutes later we heard the car drive up, pass us, and slowly drive away. We hadn’t been seen. Even more, I realized that they weren’t even looking for us.

“What the hell?! Why were we running?! Why am I dashing two city blocks and hiding in shadowy corners from the cops?!” I yelled.

“Dude, we stole some beer and Jack from the store,” said Punky. My roommate looked at me and smiled. He grabbed the bottle of Jack and offered it to me. I looked at it in my hand and stared down at the Captain, a knowing look in his eye as if to say, "See, yer' a pirate. Just like me. Arr."

"You stole liquor? On our first night in college? Wait. No. College orientation?" I stared at them all. I was shocked and horrified that people really could be this stupid. "Just how much crack did you smoke before we went out tonight?"

"Dude," said my roommate, "it's fine. It's just a bottle."

"And beer!" I screamed louder than I had probably intended.

"It's just a small adventure. Nothing to freak about," said the blonde.

"You made me run from the cops! I've never run from the cops! I like cops!" I looked back down at the Captain. Without any thought I unscrewed the cap and put the bottle to my lips and began to drink.

And, then, continued to drink. And drink. And drink. This was my first drink ever, in fact. Conicidentally, it was also the first time I felt I ever really needed a drink.

"Whoa! Don't take it all," cried the roommate.

I ignored him and continued. I could feel the peppery liquid sear down my throat and burn my stomach. Pain as punishment.

Finally, more for the desire of air than rather to stop, I put down the bottle and gasped. My body began to violently cough and my back arched over as it reacted to the burn. My lungs attempted to suck in air as quickly as possible. I put my arm out in a gesture for someone to take the bottle away. The blonde grabbed it and whined about a third of the bottle being gone or something. At that point I didn't care. I got up and meandered in what seemed to be a familiar direction. I just hoped that my young, healthy liver could process this and that I could find my way back to the dorm.

-Combined they equal pure awesome.-

The next day, my side sore and my head pounding, I befriended the strange tree climbing lad. We hit it off fabulously. By the end of orientation week he and I had made arrangements to become roommates in the dorms once the school year started. We celebrated our arrangement with other new friends who weren’t thieving bastards with a simple picnic in the quad of fruit, cheese, and bread picked up at the Farmer’s Market.

It was during that picnic that I learned the importance of association when it comes to food as well. My new friend, Sarah, showed me how to pair fruit with cheese, particularly slices of fresh seed-studded kiwi on chunks of bread smeared with chèvre. Food, too, can be judged by its pairings, friendly flavors that highlight and encourage its most endearing and exciting qualities.

At that picnic I found foods I was happy to mix together, but even better I found people who supported me . These friends were company I was happy to be judged by.

This kiwi-lemon jam is just as easy to judge through association. It also reminds me of some of the lessons I learned in that first week of college. A wild, somewhat precocious accountrment on a cheese plate this jam is sure to garner attention while simultaneously fawning over anything else your serve. Tangy chèvres and triple cream, ultra-buttery cheeses like Délice de Bourgogne or Red Hawk mingle best with it. It's particular perkiness lends it self well to waffles, yogurt, and ice cream as well.

Of course, this jam shouldn’t be judged by association alone, but on its own merits as well. Bright and sunny, it’s not the kind of jam you expect Fall bounty to produce. The kiwis’ tropical, almost strawberry-ish flavor is best if you can find them at peak ripeness when the skins are wrinkled and the flesh is dark emerald green, which means the fruit will be sweet and aromatic. Ripe, soft kiwis are a whole different flavor than hard, pale green ones that offer too much tang and too little flavor. The strong suggestion of lemon offers a slightly sour compliment to the beryl fruit.

Kiwi Lemon Jam
Adapted from The Art of Preserving
Makes 2 1/2 pints

1 Meyer lemon
3 cups sugar
3 lbs. ripe kiwi fruits

1. Cut off the ends of the lemon. Quarter the lemon lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place the lemon and 2 cups of the sugar in a food processor and process until well pureed Transfer to a nonreactive bowl and let stand at room temperature for four hours or overnight.

2. Peel the kiwis and slice them into thick rounds, about 4-5 per kiwi. Gently toss with the remaining cup of sugar. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 3-4 hours.

3. Transfer the lemon mixture to a large nonreactive saucepan and place over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the sugar is dissolved and the lemon is translucent. Add the kiwi fruit mixture to the pan, reduce the heat to medium, and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until the jam is thick. About 15 minutes. (This will be a loose jam. Overcooking it until it become very thick will scorch the kiwi fruit.)

4. Ladle into sterilized jars and process. Processed and canned it will keep for a year in a dark, cool place. Otherwise, place in the fridge and use within two months.

-Easy and affordable, this is a good starter jam for you canning newbies.-

Curiosity: Fried Plantains with Coconut Caramel Sauce

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

-A simple, tropical dessert that's perfect for the colder months.-

For years we passed over them in the grocery store in lieu of the safer, more familiar bananas. For as long as I could remember they were always there; those other bananas. Ones that weren't yellow, but instead a deep burgundy-brown color. A color I, for whatever reason deduced by childhood logic, assumed was the de-facto lipstick color for black and white movie stars like Vivian Leigh and Tallulah Bankhead. If it wasn't those tiny red ones, then there were those ginormous bananas that were as hard as rocks and called plantains.

I would ask my mom if we could get one, but every time she said no. "Let's just get the regular bananas," and she would find the biggest, greenest bunch on the display and bag it. The discussion would be closed and I would analyze the oddly huge plantains and tiny red bananas a quick second more before moving on. Maybe next time we would get them.

Sure, there were more intriguing pineapples nearby, whose pokey shape tempted my curiosity. (I would always prick my finger on the punk-rock spines on top, as if always to make sure that, yes, they were indeed sharp.) Piles of kiwis were always scattered about in large piles; it was, after all, the nineties. Mangoes and the humid fragrance they carried with them were only just making their way to the supermarkets. Yet, these strange bananas were the real mystery. Always present.

-Twice fried, these plantains have a slightly crispy exterior with the interior being hot, sweet, and a little bit starchy.-

I think it was because these doppelgangers bordered the familiar. When something is completely foreign we simply accept that it's a mystery. Something to be figured out. The fact that it's unknown from the start is what makes it so natural and acceptable. These banana look-alikes weren't like that though. These were familiar. They had an appearance so similar to what was a regular, everyday food to me. Yet, they had characteristics that were unable to be ascertained. They were aberrations in my otherwise orderly and understood world.

I reasoned, then, that if these fruits looked like bananas then they probably tasted like bananas, but only different. I was curious what they taste like. Would they be sweeter? Bitter? Harder to eat? The plantains were always hard as potatoes. I wondered if they tasted like bananas but had the crisp texture of an apple? What if it tasted totally different, like a steak or piece of over-steamed cauliflower? The prospects were both horrifying and appetizing, but exciting all the same.

Then years went by. I grew up and began to do my own shopping. Even as a younger teen, then college student, and all the sudden an adult (still not sure when that happened) I still passed over them. "Maybe I'll buy one next time," I thought. For years, since my childhood, I passed them over for next time. Next time, when I had an extra hour or more of a budget to play around with strange tropical fruits.

-In my opinions, there aren't enough desserts out there that come with a dipping sauce.-

Finally, one day, out of nowhere, I decided to get some and cook them. As if all my childhood curiosity had been suddenly stirred I was filled with a need to play with plantains. I quickly did a google search and picked up some information. After grazing over some recipes and sites I knew the following:
  • Plantains are big.
  • Plantains are starchy and must be cooked.
  • Black plantains are sweeter.
  • Plantains are popular in Cuba, Peru, Uganda, Taiwan and the Dominican Republic. Really, anywhere not continental North America, Australia, or Europe.
  • Plantains are best when fried and served with a sweet or savory dipping sauce, or when stuffed with spiced beef and baked.
Busy as hell that day I called BF and asked him if he would hop over to the store and pick some up. After a quick explanation of what a plantain was, "Look by the bananas. They're the giant looking ones you could fight crime with. Pick up the black ones." With that he was off, promising to have them sitting on the counter when I got home.

I arrived home to see that BF had failed me. There they sat; tiny and red. "Um, sweetie, these are red bananas. Not plantains."

"What? But, the sign said plantains."

"Yes, well, they would have been sitting there next to the bananas too, yes. But do these look like giant bananas you could fight crime with? You would get your ass kicked with these."

-Should you prefer, these can be served as a simple snack or appetizer as well. Just squeeze some lime juice over them for a more savory snack.-

"Not if you threw them." Touche', but still, failure none the less. So, BF and I made another quick run to the store for the plantains and where he showed me the source of his confusion. The signs were skewed and not lined up with the actual fruits. In front of the the plantains was a sign for red bananas that sat close to me in front of the plantains, while the sign for the plantains sat a little to the left of the pile. Still... BF fessed up, "I wasn't paying much attention. I just kinda dashed in and dashed out." I shrugged at him and picked a few giant, seemingly ripe plantains. I guess I would get to try both mystery fruits. I assumed my inner child was appeased and left it at that.

Back home, I decided to sit down and try these fruits out. I would satisfy my curiosity once and for all.

The red banana peeled back to reveal a typical looking banana. The flesh had a slight blush to it that I found somewhat amusing. Taste-wise it - surprise - tasted like a banana. Maybe with a slight tang; the kind you would associate with a raspberry. Not the flavor of one, just the tang. Otherwise, it was like any other banana.

It was all a bit sad really. No great revelation. No more mystery. All I had was a red banana peel and a sense that it could have used a few more days to ripen.

I knew it was fruitless to try the plantain raw. Just picking it up I could tell it had all the edibility of a raw potato. I decided that I would simply give it a double fry treatment. This meant lightly frying small discs of the plantain to soften it, before squishing them and tossing them in for a final fry. A simple caramel sauce made from brown sugar and coconut milk would sauce them and make it an easy, tropical dessert that wouldn't just contrast against the dull, Autumn weather outside, but appetizingly demystify the plantain.

-Red bananas. A nifty, slightly tangy alternative to yellow bananas.-

The gently cooked plantains resulted in sweet, soft fruit with a nicely crisp skin. The sonorously rich caramel sauce complimented the starchy flavors of the plantain. The dessert was something whose simple decadence rivaled the most chocolate-heavy dishes. Unlike the tarted-up red bananas, whose outward appearance seems to promise more than the flesh can deliver, plantains have a unique flavor. Yes, they're slightly banana-esque, but they possess a custard flavor and pound cake texture that bananas don't have. Eating each piece of caramel soaked plantain reminded me of plates of warm, freshly made flan.

In the end, my curiosity was satisfied. It seemed that an inquisitive nature and desire to know new foods, even ones that are readily available, can lead to new tastes and even the quelling of childhood questions.

Next up on my foreign fruit list? The quest for fresh mangosteen.

-Sometimes you have to venture out of your comfort zone and chase curiosity to experience something truly flavorful.-

Fried Plantains
2 ripe plantains
vegetable oil for frying

1. Cut open the plantain and cut into discs about 3/4-inch thick. Set aside.

2. Place oil in a fry pan. You want the oil to be about 1/4-inch deep. Warm oil over medium heat, to about 180F if measured with a thermometer. Place the plantains in the oil being sure not to crowd them (you will probably have to do this in batches. The oil will bubble around the plantains. Fry for 2 minutes on each side, then set on a paper towel lined plate to drain.

3. Lightly squish each plantain a bit so it has more surface area. Fry the plantains a second time, about 4 minutes on both sides being careful not to burn them. Drain on a paper towel lined plate and serve hot.

Coconut Caramel Sauce
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup of coconut milk
pinch of kosher salt

Place the brown sugar in a small but high sauce pot. Warm over medium-high heat while consistently stirring with a spoon until melted. While stirring slowly pour in the coconut milk. The mixture will bubble and froth violently, and some of the sugar may crystallize a bit. Continue to stir until the sugar and coconut milk have mixed together and the sauce has reduced a bit. About 5 minutes. Take off heat and stir in the salt. This will keep in the fridge for a few weeks.

Vanilla Garlic All rights reserved © Blog Milk Powered by Blogger