Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tasty Ways to Deal with Your Disney Withdrawals

It's been two weeks since I returned from my quickie Orlando/Disney adventure, and even though it was unbearably hot down there, and navigating the theme parks was sometimes as much hard work as it was fun, I feel like I just didn't have enough time there. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that many, many of my friends went down there right after I left (of course!), convening for the Church of the Nazarene's General Assembly, which is being held, even as I type, in Orlando this year. (I attended a Nazarene college and taught at one, too, back in the day.) So I have had to endure Facebook reports and photos and mobile updates for more than a week, as my dear old friends gallavant around my beloved Disney without me! BOO HISS!

One of the things that I always miss the most when I leave the Magic Kingdom--almost as soon as I leave the park--is DOLE WHIP! For the uninitiated, Dole Whip is this wonderful pineapple soft serve dessert that they sell in Adventureland (and also the Polynesian Resort). It comes in several other flavors as well, but the classic variety is pineapple. You can get a cup or a cone for about three bucks (not bad for a Disney snack), or you can go all out and get the Dole Whip float made with pineapple juice and Dole Whip for four bucks. YUM! I like the double pineapple, but I also love the float to be made with orange Dole Whip. Naturally, I have been pining for the stuff since returning home from Florida, and to my amazement, I have learned that you can buy the dry mix to make it at home. There's even a very helpful how-to video online to demonstrate how to prepare it in your ice cream machine. However, it is pretty expensive stuff once you add shipping, and of course, the reports from those who have tried are that it's good, but the texture isn't the same (of course--no one has an industrial soft-serve machine at home!). The texture of Dole Whip is very creamy, despite the fact that's non-dairy. How do they do it? Unfortunately, the real Dole Whip includes all kinds of space-age polymers and food additives and goo that no one really wants to think about! We just want to eat it because it tastes good!

So to console myself during my Disney withdrawals and while so many of my friends are enjoying themselves there without me right now (sniff!), I have made it my project to come up with a Dole Whip clone that could be made at home. I found a couple of recipes that have been widely circulated around the internet to mixed reviews, but the following is my own version. Now I will not say to the Dole Whip purists that this is EXACTLY the same as Dole Whip, because you just can't get the same texture and consistency at home. And of course, my version is not dairy or lactose-free. But I can tell you that it's DELICIOUS and refreshing and my new favorite summertime treat! It can be made with only pineapple juice like the classic Disney experience, or part pineapple and part orange, which I adore. Trust me, Disney and Dole Whip fans, you've got to try this!

Gina's Mock Dole Whip

2 cups Dole pineapple juice*
1 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
pinch salt

Whisk the juice and the sugar until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the cream, vanilla and salt. Unless your juice was cold to begin with, chill the mixture in the fridge for a couple of hours or over an ice bath for 20-30 minutes. Freeze in an ice cream machine, then transfer to a container and let it harden in the freezer for a few hours. Scoop and enjoy!

*You could also swap out some of the pineapple juice with orange juice which is SO good, or I suppose you could just use Dole's pineapple-orange blend. Then, of course, once your mock Dole Whip is frozen solid and scoopable, you can make floats with either pineapple or orange juice. YUM!!

The mock Dole Whip is the best, but if you want the same flavors in a refreshing Orange Julius-type of deal, I have also converted one of my favorite old stand-by recipes to a delicious pineapple version. This is not only a refreshing summer beverage, but it might also stave off the DT's when you're jonesin' for a Dole Whip but live far away from Mickey!

Gina's Pineapple Julius

6 oz. (1/2 can) Dole frozen pineapple juice concentrate
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk (powdered)
1 cup whole milk (2% is fine, too)
6 oz. can Dole pineapple juice (or swap this out for orange juice!)
12 ice cubes (regular-sized ones from a standard tray)

Combine all ingredients in a powerful blender until the ice is completely pulverized and the drink is smooth and frothy/frosty. Pour into two large glasses, add straws, and enjoy!

While I was trolling these internets for Dole Whip clone recipes, I found several websites and discussion boards and blogs devoted entirely to Disney cuisine, and to be sure, I have printed quite a few recipes to try in the very near future. But one of them that I had to make right away was a kebab recipe from Bengal Barbecue at Disneyland (continuing the Adventureland theme). Sadly, I have heard that the sauces have been outsourced now, so what you can buy in Anaheim are no longer the beloved kebabs of my childhood memory. But I found someone online who used to be a cook there and claims to have the original recipes. I can neither confirm or deny that assertion, but I made the chicken kebabs with the Tonkatsu marinade and served them with the Tahitian sauce, and they were FABULOUS! Also, the recipe calls for an interesting technique that I may now use forevermore. Before grilling the skewers, it has you steam them to keep them moist and juicy, then they are finished off on the grill for some color and smoky flavor. What a great idea! How many of us have dried out our chicken kebabs trying to make sure that they were done all the way through? This is foolproof! I used the steamer insert to my pasta pot (I had to snip off the end of each skewer to make them fit), and cooked them in two batches before taking them outside to the grill. Or you could always steam them ahead of time, refrigerate, and then they take just two or three minutes on either side on the grill. Your backyard barbecue guests and/or hungry Disney fans will be fed in no time at all!

Bengal Barbecue Chicken Skewers
(Source: MousePad Bulletin Board at MousePlanet)

Note: I used 3 lbs. of (=8) boneless and skinless chicken breasts which yielded 11 skewers of five pieces of chicken each.

Tonkatsu Marinade
1/2 cup teriyaki sauce
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (I used pomegranate balsamic*)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 whole bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger root, grated
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
*I also added one cup of pomegranate juice because I still have some in my fridge!

Mix ingredients and marinade chicken pieces overnight in the refrigerator. Soak bamboo skewers for at least 30 minutes before grilling. Skewer the meat and steam for about seven minutes, then grill for about three minutes per side or until evenly browned. Dip in Tahitian Sauce before serving.

Tahitian Sauce*
4 whole cloves (I just used 1/8 teaspoon ground)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (again, I used pomegranate balsamic)
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup crushed pineapple
1/2 cup pineapple juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce (I would use reduced sodium here, as my sauce turned out very salty)
1/4 cup orange juice concentrate
3 tablespoons water

Simmer cloves in vinegar for 5-10 minutes (I didn't do this-- just used ground cloves and stirred it in with everything else). Strain cloves and add other ingredients. Bring mixture to slow boil over medium heat.

*You don't need ALL of this sauce for 11 chicken skewers, so you can easily halve the recipe. But I figured that it would keep well enough in the fridge, and I could use the homemade BBQ sauce on many other of summer's grilled meats!

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Special Visit to See Mickey (and Minnie!)

Even though I was smack dab in the middle of teaching the first summer session, I had to squeeze in a long weekend in Orlando earlier this month. You see, my cousin Mandi and her partner Ashley were having their commitment ceremony, and if that weren't exciting enough, they were doing it at their very favorite place in the world, Epcot! Having never been a part of a Disney wedding, I just HAD to be there. Moreover, my family is from Georgia, and they are very conservative Southern Baptists. I was extremely worried that no one from the family would be there to support my sweet cousin as she crossed this major threshold in her life. So I was determined to be there for her!

Of course, if you're going to go to Orlando, you HAVE to have some theme park fun while you're there! So my plan was to leave Friday, hit the Magic Kingdom (my favorite!) on Saturday, Animal Kingdom (I had never been there) on Sunday, the wedding at Epcot on Monday, and then fly back that night so that I could be back in class on Tuesday. A whirlwind tour, to be sure, but a lot of recreation could be squeezed into a few days. However, I needed to compel a friend to join me, because where's the fun in doing Disney alone? Even though she was enduring a frightfully busy time at work, I talked my old roomie, Cyd, into meeting me in Orlando for the weekend. A perfect plan, right? As it turns out, not so much.

Things started out well. Cyd and I arrived around the same time in Orlando Friday evening, and after spending some quality time in Disney-like lines at Hertz, finally got a rental car and got on the road. We found our motel, got checked in, and then sought out some Cuban food for dinner. There were a lot of recommendations for a place called Havana's Cuban Cafe, so we went a checked it out. The food was very good, very authentic, and very plentiful. We started with some mariquitas (plantain chips) and mojo dipping sauce. Then we shared a "Camaguey" combination platter of grilled skirt steak, pork, and chicken, along with black beans and rice. We were so full after all that that we did not have dessert, but Cyd enjoyed a demitasse of rich and frothy Cuban coffee. When we got back to the motel after dinner, it was past pool hours, but the nice lady at the front desk told us we could swim anyway! So we spent an hour in the pool, cooling off before hitting the hay. All in all, an auspicious start to our mini-vacay! The next day was where it all derailed...

I made sure we were up and ready to go bright and early, grabbing a quick breakfast and heading directly to the Magic Kingdom to be in line before it opened. Now a couple things should be noted before I continue with my story. One, it was HOTTER THAN THE SURFACE OF THE SUN! (Orlando in June is no place to be if you have a choice about it!) Secondly, you should know that Cyd is afflicted with motion sickness, so we know to keep her off spinning things (teacups) and motion simulators (Star Tours-type). After the cute opening number and the mayor welcoming us in (I'll admit it, I got choked up!), we jumped the train for Frontierland, and headed to Splash Mountain first. Other than Cyd losing her hat on the big drop, it was very fun. Then we went next door to Great Thunder Mountain. Though we had been in the park less than an hour, this is where it all went horribly wrong. We weren't on the ride two seconds before Cyd started screaming (not in a good way) and begging me to make it stop (like I had the power). When we got off the ride, she was ready to hurl.

So we rested for a bit, and then walked slowly over to Liberty Square to one of her favorite attractions, the Haunted Mansion. I figured it was cool and dark in there, and the ride was slow enough. But afterwards, she was still not looking so good. So we rested a while longer, and then walked slowly into Fantasyland where I thought Small World would be a good choice. Again, it is a cool, dark, long, slow, gentle ride. But when I looked over at her as we floated along, her head was back and her eyes were closed. We got off the boat, and headed toward the exit. At the door, I turned around and realized that Cyd wasn't behind me, so I walked back up the ramp to discover the poor thing in a terrible state. I won't go into unpleasant detail, but I'm not sure that the Small World moat will ever be the same! :-(

Once again, we sat outside for a good long while, hoping she would feel better. But all she wanted to do was lay down and make the world stop spinning. I explained that she could NOT lay down in the bushes in Fantasyland or authorities would be notified. Hence, there was no choice but to begin the long, slow, arduous trek in the horrible heat from the very back of the park, via planes, trains, automobiles, trams and monorails back to the hotel where she promptly passed out on her bed in the life-giving, air-conditioned room. Though I had lost a couple of hours in my carefully-crafted Magic Kingdom touring plan, I sure wasn't going to miss my chance altogether to enjoy Disney World, especially since I had already bought my terribly overpriced one-day ticket! So I hauled my cookies back to the park and did the Magic Kingdom all by myself until late that evening (BOO HISS). I kept hoping that my friend would eventually feel better and rejoin me, but no such luck that day. How very tragic it all was...

The next day at Animal Kingdom went better. It was still hot as blazes, but most of the park is shaded by trees and bamboo, plus it's smaller, and is not a park that takes all day to do. However, once again, Cyd seemed determined to vex me by wearing inappropriate footwear and giving herself MASSIVE blisters, making it nearly impossible for her to walk. So we had to take it VERY slow and take frequent breaks, but we managed to see most of the attractions, and even though Cyd wasn't up for many rides, I did persuade her to try the Dinosaur ride at the end of the day without any, er, upheaval. Yay! By early evening, we were exhausted. So we grabbed some dinner on the way back to the motel, and then enjoyed another swim in the pool. We tried to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, because we planned to enjoy that old Southern favorite, the Waffle House, for breakfast before heading to Epcot for the wedding at 10am. At least, that's when I THOUGHT the ceremony was!

I got up about 7am, started getting ready and packing up my stuff. Then about 7:30am, I checked the invitation on a whim and realized to my horror that the wedding was at 9am--it was the reception that started at 10! YIKES! I screamed for Cyd to get up, and we flew around like crazy, getting out of there by about 8:15. We were only ten minutes from Epcot, but we still had to park and hike to the gate, and you must remember, Cyd's feet were thrashed, and she had to go very slowly. When we got to the entrance, not only were we late, but nobody seemed to be able to tell us how we were supposed to get to "Italy" for the ceremony. (The park doesn't open until 9, and the countries don't open until 11.) By about 8:40, as I was sobbing hysterically at the thought of missing my cousin's wedding, Guests Services finally managed to contact one of the coordinators to come and escort us to the ceremony. Apparently, not only did I get the time wrong, I totally missed the instructions that the brides sent out telling guests not to go to the park directly, but to catch a shuttle bus from one of two Disney resorts. SHEESH! But thanks to a wonderfully helpful Disney special events coordinator who ran us over to the wedding in a blissfully air-conditioned van, we made it right there right as the bus with the rest of the guests arrived, so we blended right in!

The ceremony was brief but lovely (which was probably a mercy in that merciless heat), and I was SO pleased and touched that my cousin, Dianne (Mandi's aunt), her two grown sons, Todd and Brandon, and even my Aunt Jean (Mandi's grandmother) were in attendance! I know that it was a bittersweet day for them, as they have different values and world views, but it was so amazing to me that they put their love for Mandi first and were there for her on her special day! As my aunt put it in her plain-spoken elegance, "You don't give up on family just because they don't do what you think they should do!" Amen, Aunt Jean, amen! Still, I never thought I'd live to see my 78-year-old Southern Baptist aunt dancing the chicken dance and the Hokey Pokey with Minnie Mouse and the brides at a lesbian commitment ceremony and having a ball doing it!

The visit by Minnie was the highlight of the reception that was held in a GORGEOUS room in the Living Seas Pavillion that had huge windows that looked into a giant aquarium, so that massive fish and sea turtles and such swam past us as we were celebrating. SO COOL! And being Disney, they didn't miss a trick in the fabulous brunch spread. When we first arrived, they had a coffee and tea bar for us, along with yogurt, fresh fruit, and an assortment of pastries. We sat around for awhile, soaking up the ambiance, meeting other wedding guests, and I caught up with my family, as we ooh'ed and ahh'ed at the marine life swimming past us in the beautiful under-the-sea reception room.
Then we were invited into the next room to our tables, guided by our "place cards" that were little blue boxes of chocolates with our names and table assignments, all with an aquatic theme, of course (my table was "Nemo"). Once we were seated, toasts were made, special songs were sung, the brides greeted all of their guests personally, and then it was time for brunch! On the great table, there was fresh fruit, smoked salmon with cream cheese and caviar and red onion, roasted vegetables, mashed Yukon Golds, mushroom spaetzle, smoked bacon, and maple-glazed sausages.
There was a carving station where they were serving roast beef tenderloin, a made-to-order omelette bar, and also a crepe bar where they served chocolate crepes filled with Nutella or vanilla crepes filled with cream cheese and berries, both of which could be topped with a vanilla bean creme anglaise. YUM!

After we polished off the second wave of food, Minnie Mouse arrived to get the party started! She took a million silly photos with the guests, led the dancing (with a Disney d.j. spinning the tunes), and even helped the brides cut the cake. The cake was AMAZING--one of those topsy-turvy, whimsical affairs with wonderfully bright shades of blue, as befitting the wedding colors. And the cutest touch was the two pair of Minnie Mouse ears on top! The inside was just as magical, with two flavors of cake--one was dark chocolate with a sinful chocolate mousse filling, and the other (given the brides' southern roots) was a red velvet cake with cream cheese filling.
As if that weren't enough, there was yet another buffet table with a variety of other yummy desserts, including angel food cake squares with whipped cream and strawberries, little cream horns, a miniature jelly roll, small cannolis, and tiny fresh fruit tarts with little flower and star-shaped melon cut-outs on top. I don't know how we did it, but we managed to sample some of everything. My favorite of the miniature desserts was the raspberry jelly roll which was so tender--almost ethereal. And though we found both kinds of wedding cake to be extremely delicious, we had to give a slight edge to the lusciously tangy red velvet layer!
Before we knew it, the reception drew to a close. Minnie Mouse gave the brides her very moving, though pantomimed, benediction, I said goodbye to my family, the other guests re-boarded the bus, and Cyd and I started our flaming-hot hike out of Epcot to the car and ultimately to the airport. We were exhausted and heat-stroked and battered and blistered from the Orlando experience, but overall, we had a great time. I've missed my friend so much, and it was wonderful to be able to hang out with her for a few days, in spite of all the mayhem and mishaps! But mostly, it was so special for me to share in Mandi and Ashley's commitment to each other. They are just delightful young women, so bright and motivated, with such happy and hopeful attitudes, a wonderful sense of fun, who are obviously very much in love with each other. I wish for them a lifetime of happiness together!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bring on the picnics and potlucks!

I can hardly believe it! We started the first summer session just a month ago, and here we are at the end of it! Then I will have about a week off to tend to some pressing concerns around the house and in the garden, and maybe even catch up on some long overdue BLOGGING? ;-)

In the meantime, I'll share some pics and recipes from the employee picnic/potluck that we had at school on Thursday (=the new Friday, especially during the summer). It was a simply GORGEOUS day for it, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves out on the veranda overlooking stunning Lake Champlain in all its glory! And the eats weren't bad either!

As for me, I decided at the last minute to attend, so I wanted to make something tasty and unique, but something quick that, preferably, had to be assembled more than prepared. In browsing some potluck dishes online, I came across a clever idea for a layered dip, much like the ubiquitous Mexican version that we all know and love, but this one would be made with Mediterranean ingredients. And though you may make it all from scratch, I confess that I turned to my old friend Cedar's for a little help.

Layered Mediterranean Dip

1 1/4 cups prepared hummus (I used
Cedar's roasted red pepper variety)
3/4 cup tzatziki (again, I used
Cedar's cucumber and garlic variety)
4 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/4 (large) onion, peeled and chopped
1 ripe avocado, seeded and chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
salt and pepper, to taste
6 oz. crumbled feta cheese (plain or flavored)
1/2 cup sliced black olives (preferably, kalamata)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

In the bottom of an 8x8 baking dish, spread hummus evenly. Then top with tzatziki and level with a spatula. Refrigerate these layers until you finish cutting and chopping the next few ingredients.

Gently toss the chopped tomatoes, onion, avocado, with the lemon juice, cumin, and salt and pepper. Retrieve the baking dish from the fridge and spoon the veggie mixture on top. Smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle feta cheese evenly over that layer, and then top with sliced black olives. Finish with a generous sprinkling of fresh parsley, and serve with toasted pita chips*.

*I like
Stacy's Simply Naked Pita Chips (with just a little sea salt) that I found at Sam's Club, where I also found the Cedar's products that I used in the dip.

Though there were a lot of yummy dishes at the summer potluck at school, one of the things that I particularly liked were these little appetizers that looked sort of like mini-quiches and that were prepared by Jenny, the woman who runs our copy center at the college and who organized the potluck. They were called Swiss, Bacon, and Tomato Bites, and I wheedled the recipe out of her by promising to turn my fall course packets in early. (Tee hee.) Jenny tells me that this recipe originally comes from The Pampered Chef, but that she has tweaked it, basically by adding more of everything (which can't be a bad thing). Though I have yet to make them myself, they seem pretty easy, and I can attest that they look elegant and taste terrific! I'm sorry that I didn't take a picture, but by the time I arrived (about fifteen minutes late, as is my way), they were almost gone, and I ate the last one! So you'll just have to make some for yourself to see what they look like. And whether you make the Swiss, Bacon, and Tomato Bites or the Mediterranean Layered Dip, they are sure to be hits at your next picnic or potluck!

Swiss, Bacon, and Tomato Bites

1 can 10 oz. Pillsbury Flaky Biscuits
6 slices cooked bacon, finely chopped
4 oz. swiss cheese, finely chopped
1 tomato, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon basil, finely chopped

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Cut each biscuit into 4 and roll into balls. (Sometimes for a fancier edge, Jenny separates the biscuit by layers). Lightly spray each cup with nonstick cooking spray. Place each into a mini muffin tin and press into the cups.

Mix bacon, tomato, swiss cheese, mayo and basil and place a little over a teaspoon into each cup. Be careful not to overfill or it will melt over edge and stick to the pan.

Bake 10-15 minutes until golden brown.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spring Road Trip to Vermont

The winter was long, as always, this year, and the school year was even longer. The end of both finally came, but as I shared in my last post, I immediately came down with something only slightly less severe than the swine flu, and then I spent my week off at a conference on the other side of the state. I was very thankful to have the long Memorial Day Weekend to recuperate from both, and then the first summer session began the following Tuesday. Working three days for less than seven hours total wasn't too taxing, though, and I celebrated myself with a grand outing that Saturday. Truly, it was a perfect day, incorporating all of the things I love best, especially at this time of year.

I got up early (for me!), and was on the road by 8am. I drove up and around, via lovely Rouses Point and across our beloved Lake Champlain to Alburg, Vermont, and then made a side trip to Highgate Center to visit an excellent greenhouse called H&B where I can always find several interesting varieties of the earliest Siberian types of tomatoes, among other good things. Then my TomTom (GPS) led me through some very pretty back roads down to Burlington. Everyone loves New England in October, but late May/early June is also an AMAZING time to visit Vermont, when everything is such a bright, fresh, new green!

I made my way downtown, and in some kind of miracle of fate, I found a three-hour parking place right in front of both the bistro where I intended to have brunch and right across the street from the farmer's market, which was already in full swing. I have been wanting to try Magnolia Breakfast and Lunch Bistro for some time. It is the first restaurant in Vermont to be certified green, a real "locavore" restaurant, serving organic, local, and seasonal foods. In the second miracle of the day (perhaps the third, if you count me getting out of bed before 10am on a Saturday!), I walked right into Magnolia and got a table without waiting.

Having perused their menu online, I went in with the intent of having their lemon ricotta pancakes with whipped mascarpone. But the waitress read me their specials and tempted me with a housemade hash with locally-sourced roast beef and both blue and yellow-fleshed potatoes and two poached eggs. So I decided to try that, but with one pancake on the side. I am glad that I made that decision, because Magnolia's food is delicious, but the portions are quite small, especially for the price. Still, I love their attention to detail, like offering my favorite Vermont hot sauces on the table, as well as little pots of housemade ketchup and strawberry jam! Another thing I like about Magnolia is that they offer free wi-fi, so while I waited for my meal, I checked my email and posted a status update on Facebook on my precious little pink netbook which drew A LOT of attention from one hostess and two waitresses! Tee hee.

After brunch, I headed over to the farmer's market where I acquired a few more plants for my vegetable garden, some GORGEOUS spring greens, and a bunch of baby scallions that were just a hair thicker than chives. And in yet another stroke of serendipity, Ben and Jerry's was there, handing out free samples of their newest ice cream product called Flipped Out! It comes in a little cup and has brownie pieces on top, then ice cream, then a chocolate shell, and finally, fudge sauce. Once you inverted it onto a plate, you had cake with ice cream, topped with crunchy chocolate and rich sauce on top. Very clever, and though I generally prefer my Ben and Jerry's unadulterated, very tasty as well.
After the farmer's market, since it was so close by, I stopped by the Fresh Market. Of course, I had to get a pistachio cookie and a Bees' Knees bar, but also a ginormous cream puff (the filling was perfect, the choux pastry was so-so), and my new favorite thing in the whole world, something they modestly called a chocolate hazelnut bar. It had a tender shortbread base, a layer of creamy hazelnut butter, a ton of roasted hazelnuts, and it was all topped with a soft, luscious bittersweet chocolate ganache. OH MY! If you like Nutella, this will send you into going crazy! (Name the movie...anyone?) Then over on the savory side of the market, I picked up some wonderful, locally-smoked mozzarella, a couple of containers of my favorite hummus, and from the deli bar, some deliciously creamy and spicy cold sesame noodles flecked throughout with black sesame seeds. YUM! As I left the market, I definitely had plans to try cloning some of those goodies, as is my way. ;-)

After the Fresh Market, I headed down the interstate to my ultimate destination, the fabulous little family-owned greenhouse in Huntington, VT called Pleasant Mount Farm. I learned of them years ago when I couldn't find the unusual varieties of tomatoes that I prefer at Gardener Supply, and the helpful lady at the counter directed me to this place near Richmond where the proprietor was said to grow all kinds of interesting heirlooms. I have been making an annual pilgrimage ever since! It's about 20 or 30 minutes south of Burlington proper, but it's a simply GORGEOUS drive, especially at this time of year when everything is so lush and verdant! And it winds you past beautiful old churches (my favorite is the Old Round Church) and civic buildings and grain mills and a blacksmith. It's like travelling back in time--so charming! Naturally, I ended up purchasing far too many tomato (62), pepper (48), and herb plants (6 Italian parsley, 12 basils, including Genovese, lime, lemon and purple Aromatica, and one rosemary), and also 12 lettuces, both Red Sails and Speckled Bibb. I know, I know...but my friend, Vicky, is attempting a big garden at her camp in the woods this year, and I'm splitting the tomatoes and peppers with her, so not to worry.

Speaking of Vicky, she was to return to Burlington from visiting her son in Minneapolis that day, so I was hoping we could connect for dinner before heading back to New York. But alas, she forgot to turn her phone on until she was already at the ferry. Boo hiss. So I went by myself to din-din at Bove's Italian Cafe, the site of an infamous lasagna throwdown on the Food Network. It was one of the rare occasions when Bobby Flay actually won, and I now see why. I'm sorry to report that the lasagna was okay, but nothing to write home about. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I can and have made WAY better lasagnas myself! Bove's lasagna was very basic, the sort of recipe that might come on the back of the generic noodle box, and the marinara sauce (which they now bottle and sell at retail for double the cost of an average jar) was WAY too acidic! Still, it was a decent, filling meal at a reasonable price in a quaint diner setting, and as a bonus, my waitress was terrific! All in all, it was a GLORIOUS day in the Green Mountain state!

Since then, I have tried my hand at both the chocolate hazelnut bars and the cold sesame noodles. Here are the recipes:

Chocolate Hazelnut Bars

2 cups flour
2/3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks cold butter

1 1/2 cups hazelnuts

12 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup hazelnut (or cashew) butter
2 tablespoons butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, powdered sugar, corn starch and salt. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients until well mixed. Press into a buttered 8x8-inch baking dish. Freeze for 15 minutes. Bake the crust about 25 minutes, until the edges just turned golden. Set aside to cool a bit on a wire rack.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees and roast the hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer for about ten minutes, or until they brown. Let them cool until they can be handled. Then rub them in a clean towel until most of the skins are removed. Set aside.

Stir together the chocolate chips, cream, and butter. Microwave on high for approximately 3 1/2 minutes, stirring after each minute. Set aside.

Mix the hazelnut (or cashew) butter with two tablespoons of softened butter, then spread on top of the shortbread crust. Next, add the the toasted nuts on top of the hazelnut butter layer. Finally, pour the ganache over everything. Refrigerate until completely cool. Cut and serve.

Cold Sesame Noodles

1 lb. Chinese egg noodles or long Italian pasta of choice
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
3 scallions, sliced
1 large carrot, shredded finely
1 small or 1/2 large red pepper, small dice
2-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup peanut butter (I used cashew butter)
1/4 cup brown sugar
5 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup pasta water
2 teaspoons chili paste or to taste
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds (or toasted white ones)

Prepare pasta according to package instructions. Drain the pasta and run under cold water until completely cool. Drain thoroughly, then in a large bowl, toss the pasta with the sesame oil and set aside.

In a small sauce pan, heat the peanut or vegetable oil over medium-low heat. Saute the scallions, carrots, red pepper, ginger and garlic for a couple of minutes until softened. Whisk in the peanut butter, brown sugar, rice vinegar, soy sauce, pasta water, and chili paste. Mix until peanut butter smooths out. Toss the noodles with the sauce until well-coated. Sprinkle in the sesame seeds and chill thoroughly. Serve as a side dish, or add cooked shrimp or shredded chicken for an entree.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Greater love hath no man (or woman) than to bake a friend a pie!

The school FINALLY ended on Friday, May 15th (yeah--she lives!). But instead of having a nice, relaxing week off before the first summer session began, I immediately contracted the most HIDEOUS chest cold (for a few days there, I was convinced that I had been stricken with the swine flu!), PLUS I was scheduled to attend a conference on instructional technology at Oswego State. I really felt too sick to go, but this was the first year that the conference and summer school didn't overlap. So I drug my sorry self across the state to enjoy a few days of learning about how to use Second Life, Facebook, Twitter, video games, and yes, even blogging, for educational purposes. Despite my being so under the weather, it really was fun, and we had a very jolly crew from the college that all went together in school van and stayed in the dorms there at Oswego. Moreover, I bought the CUTEST little pink Acer netbook (and many precious pink accessories, including a carrying case, cordless mouse, mousepad, and flash drive) to take with me to use at the conference, and people went GA-GA over it, especially the women. Like me, they were enchanted by its diminutive size and mostly by the girly pinkness of it! Tee hee.

We were at the conference Tuesday through Friday, and then back home to recuperate over the Memorial Day Weekend before my class started on Tuesday, May 26. I was feeling much better, but still had a nagging cough, and I wasn't sure how I was going to manage lecturing, never mind having the energy to make it through a two hour and fifteen minute class each day! Though it should be said, I was very thankful to have the opportunity to teach the class at all, as many others had been cancelled due to low enrollment, and I wasn't relishing the idea of having to temp or get a side job at the mall or somewhere if it didn't go! Nevertheless, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself for having to return to work so soon without what I would consider to be a sufficient break. But then I got to thinking about some of my non-teaching colleagues at school who always have to work twelve months of the year, and I felt both chagrined at my bad attitude and appreciative of these dedicated and long-suffering employees.

One of my pals at school is a dear fellow called John Petro, who is one of our awesome Student Support Counselors and just an all-around cool guy. He and I were chatting recently about an upcoming pie-baking workshop that I'll be teaching. He asked what kind of pies we'd be making in the class, and when I mentioned that I like to include one cream pie, his eyes lit up, and he confessed that banana cream and coconut cream were two of his very favorites. Well, that's all a passionate cook needs to hear--that she could make someone happy by baking him one of his favorite pies! But which one: banana cream or coconut cream? Then I thought, why not BOTH? Banana and coconut are tropical flavors that go well together, right? (I only know this in theory, as I personally hate them both!) Why not banana-coconut cream? Better yet, I thought, why not add some chocolate to the mix, too (which is rarely a bad idea!)? And since I seemed to be running with a Caribbean theme, why not a little rum for good measure? Before I knew it, I was inventing a pie that I decided to name "Johnny's Jamaican Vacation," in honor of my buddy, John, who deserves a tropical excursion, but who had to settle for a pie.

On the bottom of a pre-baked pie shell, there was a layer of bittersweet ganache, then a layer of sliced bananas, then more ganache, then a coconut pastry cream spiked with a wee bit of dark rum, topped with sweetened whipped cream, and finally, some toasted coconut. I regret that I cannot show you a picture of the inside layers of a slice of the pie, as it was a gift, and I gave it away in its pristine, uncut state. But I heard from several people who had a piece that the layers looked (and tasted) great! That makes me happy, but mostly, I am pleased that John chose to share his special pie with many of the other hard-working folks on the first floor, because he's just that kind of guy! And they all deserve a special treat down there, as they work so hard year-round for our students. Maybe you know someone where you work who deserves a pie like this, too?

Johnny's Jamaican Vacation Pie

9-inch single pie crust

6 oz. (one cup) semi- or bittersweet chocolate chips
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
4 tablespoons heavy cream
4 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla

2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced

Coconut Pastry Cream:
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon corn starch
pinch of salt
2 large eggs plus one egg yolk
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons dark rum
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Blind bake the pie shell for 20 minutes, turn the oven down to 350, remove the parchment and pie weights, and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Set aside to cool. (While the oven is hot, you might want to go ahead and toast a half cup of the shredded coconut for about five minutes at 350 until golden brown, then set aside to cool.)

Over a double boiler (or in three or four one-minute intervals in the microwave), melt the chocolate, butter, cream, and corn syrup. When completely melted, stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool while you make the coconut pastry cream.

In a large sauce pan over medium heat, bring the half-and-half to a simmer. (If I had had some, I would have swapped out coconut milk for some, if not all, of the half-and-half.) In a large heat-proof bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, corn starch, salt, eggs and yolk until smooth. Temper the egg mixture with a little of the hot half-and-half, then gradually add more and more until all of the half-and-half is incorporated. Pour the whole mixture back into the sauce pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the custard comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from the heat, strain if desired (I always do), and then add the butter and one cup of the shredded (untoasted) coconut, along with the vanilla and rum. Chill completely over an ice bath, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, whip one half cup of heavy cream with one tablespoon of powdered sugar until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the whipped cream into the cooled pastry cream to lighten it.

To assemble the pie, spread one half of the chocolate ganache in the bottom of the baked and cooled pie shell, cover with one layer of the sliced bananas, then top with the remaining ganache. Refrigerate until the ganache firms up (30 minutes to an hour). Spoon in the coconut pastry cream and smooth/even out the top. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for several hours or, preferably, overnight.

When the pie is completely chilled and set, whip one cup of heavy cream with two tablespoons of powdered sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla until stiff peaks form. Cover the pie with the whipped cream, then sprinkle with the toasted coconut. Refrigerate until you're ready to serve.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Homemade Chorizo and My New Favorite Hummus

Have you ever given any thought to making your own chorizo? No, no, no—I haven’t got my charcuterie on yet! But one night, I wanted some nachos with a meaty topping, and I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was out of ground beef. While rooting around in the freezer, I discovered a one-pound roll of regular old breakfast sausage, and I figured that maybe I could make it work. I browned the mild pork sausage and added the following:

1 tablespoon dark chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika (I like to use half sweet and half smoked here)
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt (depending on how salty the sausage is)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)

I know, I know. It’s just adding seasoning to ordinary meat, but WOW! This homemade (uncured) chorizo is not only my new favorite topping for nachos, it’s the most delicious filling for tacos, tostadas or burritos, and it makes a wickedly good taco salad, especially with corn, Cuban black beans, red onion, and avocado! I don’t know why I always turn first to ground beef for these applications when ground pork is so amazingly flavorful! You’ve gotta try this easy swap-out on the next taco night at your house!

And if it’s one of those nights where even browning up some meat and chopping up some veggies is too much work, and you find yourself turning to prepared foods, I have a product recommendation for you. I usually make my own hummus (it’s so easy and inexpensive to do at home in the food processor!) because I like to add lots of extra garlic and freshly-squeezed lemon juice. But when I just want to grab some hummus and go, perhaps for a quickie lunch on the run, I have long been a fan of Cedar’s hummus. But I have only recently discovered my new favorite flavor: artichoke and spinach! YUM! Their roasted red pepper variety is really good, too, but I just love the lemony taste of the artichokes blended in, and the spinach makes the hummus very attractive, flecked with bits of dark green. It’s not hard to find Cedar’s hummus, but usually, the stores I shop carry just their original hummus and maybe garlic lover’s. But it’s worth seeking out some of these more unusual varieties at a gourmet deli or specialty food shop. In fact, there are several flavors listed on their website that I have never seen for sale that I’d love to try, including zesty lemon, roasted red chili pepper, pesto, sundried tomato and basil, even jalapeno and water chestnut. Hmm…maybe this calls for a special online order! If you live close to Massachusetts as I do, you don’t even have to pay for overnight shipping. It might just be worth it to try some of these other yummy-sounding flavors!