Monday, July 21, 2014

Cottage Panzanella

Sometimes, the best of part of the meal is the fresh bread, but day-old bread is usually not welcome at the table. Throughout culinary history, some inventive ways have been devised to save dry, stale bread from the bin. The French  deserve credit for the cute, crunchy little croutons that are the star of  a classic onion soup. Middle Easterners save pita by toasting it, then breaking it up over a fresh, lemony Fattoush salad. The Italians do it with Panzanella.

A mad mob of French breadmakers will be quite disappointed to know that I have sacrificed many a half-loaf of freshly baked baguette the second day. What makes baguette an irresistible bread, even for someone like me who usually finds other things more appealing at the dinner table, is the beautiful delicate crunch of the outer crust and the billowy soft center. The next day, one of two things will happen. If the baguette is left open air, it will transform into a brick, best suited as a self-defense weapon.  If stored in a plastic bag, it turns into a spongy soft bread, which does not sound all that bad, except that crunchy crust is gone.

Day-old bread serves best torn right over the fresh Panzanella where it soaks up the dressing and all the delicious juices from the vegetables.  This rustic salad is so quick to make and so lip-smackin' delicious that I have already made it THREE times in the last 2 days! It's peculiar, really, that I had never thought to try it before. As I was running down Andrea's list for July's Cottage recipes, my eyes screeched to a halt at Panzanella. It was finally time for me to make it.

Here, day-old bread has never been in better company. The cool crunch from the Persian cucumbers, the briny capers and kalamatas, creamy, salty feta cheese, sweet little cherry tomatoes, fragrant basil and slight punch from the shallots all get a turn to take center stage. The bread soaks up the fruity olive oil and tangy lime juice along with hints from all the other ingredients. 

I cannot seem to get sick of this salad and have an unavoidable urge to finish whatever is left in that bowl. All this talk about Panzanella made me so hungry that I could not stop thinking about it. So I just ran to the fridge to grab what little leftovers we have to munch on while writing to you. It certainly helps that I'm married to Farmer Shawn and enjoy homegrown tomatoes. They taste like sweet candy right off the vine. The basil is also from our garden. Invest in quality ingredients. Try different brands until you find the ones you like best. Al Wazir is our olive oil and Valbresso is our favourite feta cheese.

Cottage Panzanella
Inspired by River Cottage Veg

Serves 6

1 lime
1/3 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
Freshly cracked black pepper
2 good handfuls of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes
2 Persian cucumbers
1/2 a loaf day-old baguette
10 pitted kalamata olives
1/2 a small shallot
1 1/2 tsp capers, rinsed
handful basil leaves
2 Tb crumbled feta

Wash cucumbers and tomatoes.
Rinse basil leaves under cold water, set aside to air-dry.

In a big bowl, grate the zest of the lime, extract its juice,
drizzle olive oil, sprinkle black pepper.
Use a fork to blend dressing until it thickens to an opaque lemon-yellow sauce.

Slice cucumbers and tomatoes into the bowl.
Very thinly slice the shallot and add about 1 Tb to the bowl.
Add the capers and olives.
Tear basil and bread over the lot.
Use two spoons to toss gently.

Thanks to Andrea for suggesting this one, many a half-loaf of baguette has been saved from the bin in a mouth-watering combination of signature Mediterranean flavours. Once again, I have strayed from Hugh's instructions a bit and embellished with a few variations. I assure you the results are fabulous and if I have lucky enough to find Hugh reading this post one day, I hope he will taste it and smile with approval.

One bite will have you convinced this is what you want for dinner on any summer night. So light and refreshing, yet hearty and satisfying, rustic Panzanella features all the elements of a classic time-tested salad. What will surprise you most is seeing everyone fighting over those odd-shaped chunks of stale bread.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Cocktail Hour: Sweet Minty Mood Lifter

The Mood Lifter. It's my latest invention. If Mojito married Amaretto, this is what their baby would be. What do you do when your mom gets you a Nutribullet? Make a cocktail. What else? A minty, citrusy, slushy concoction that gives Margarita a run for her money. A sheer delight. Smoother, milder than the traditional mojito, the sweet undertones of this sassy little number make it quite sink-into-your-seat-and-say-ahhhh good.

Now, I want it to be known that I am not a qualified bartender, nor do I have a history degree specializing in the evolution of alcoholic beverages. I just know what I like. When we are out for a fancy dinner, if I order a cocktail, it's always the mojito. So crisp and refreshing with a hint of pirate adventure,  the ones my hubby makes for me at home top my list. Shawn makes the best ones I have ever tasted. A close second is the mojito I had at the snazzy lounge bar of our hotel in Florence years ago when we were honeymooning in Italy.

One of the best things about living in an Armenian neighbourhood is easy access to good quality fresh herbs. Spearmint is the leafy green you want for this sassy li'l number. A word of warning to those of you inclined to grow this stuff in your home garden: Beware that mint is a hearty plant that literally invades like a weed. Be sure to keep it confined to a pot.

Mood Lifter
Fills 4 martini glasses

fresh mint, good handful
3 shots Amaretto di Sarono
2 jigs Rose's Lime Concentrate
1 cup Limeade
1 orange, juice only
1 lime, juice only
handful ice
4 pretty sprigs of mint for garnish

Chill martini glasses in the fridge maybe an hour ahead.

Wash mint and lay onto a clean tea towel to air-dry.
Juice an orange and a lime into the pitcher of a blender.
Add the mint, Amaretto, lime concentrate, limeade and ice.
Give it a good blitz until just slushy.
Divide among 4 sparkly martini glasses and garnish with a pretty sprig of mint.

Because it is made with fresh leafy greens and antioxidant-rich citrus, technically this is a cocktail that is somewhat, in a way, perhaps good for you. Amaretto smooths the rough edges of traditional mojito into this velvety drink that is a delight to sip, although so delicious that gulping it all in one breath may not be avoidable.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blooming Kale Strawberry Salad

The culinary bandwagon rolled by several times, but I am still driving a VW. These days, there are so many creative food items that have been brought into the limelight, cast as super foods, that it can be somewhat overwhelming, especially for those of us who like to keep things simple. My generation saw chia seeds sprouted as tacky mini clay figurines, not praised as a dietary supplement. Millet is a tempting snack for my pet bird and kombucha, hell, if I face-planted into one, I would never even know it. 

Enter the Kale Phenomenon. This rough-and-tough leafy green would do better as an ornamental plant in my garden rather than gracing my dinner plate. So I thought, til I tasted it. Even I can bend to the big waves which have been boasting its exceptional nutritional attributes. Throw some parmesan and strawberries into the mix and I'll eat anything. 

As a bonus, there is a purple blooming variety with the added benefit of rich polyphenol antioxidants. I not a registered dietitian and so am more impressed with its stunning beauty. Composed as a colourful salad, its deep, bright purple hue, graceful curls tinted in green and interesting veining mimic the vivid world of marine life. Luckily, this beauty does not seem to mind my awkward stares.

A salad is indeed the best way to showcase this leafy blossom. Fresh strawberries, Asian pears, dried tart cherries all dove into the big bowl, bathed in fresh lime juice and a touch of balsamic vinegar, finished with snowy blanket of finely grated parmesan. 

Purple Kale Strawberry Salad
Serves 4

1 head of flowering purple kale
10 strawberries
1 Asian pear
1/4 dried pitted tart cherries
1 lime, juiced
1 Tb balsamic vinegar
4 Tb grated parmesan
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
pinch of salt

Juice the lime.
Wash and rinse the kale and pear.
Slice the pear, chop the kale and drizzle lime juice over the pear.
Season with salt and pepper.
Add dried cherries.
Drizzle balsamic vinegar over the fruits and give them a gentle toss.

Just before serving,
wash and slice strawberries. 
Add to the salad, sprinkle grated parmesan on top.

Healthy is tasty and beautiful in this innovative salad. All flavours are in order: Salty, sweet, tart. The textures are so interesting with the rough chewy purple kale, crunchy pear, juicy strawberries and gummy cherries and nothing is missed. It pairs well with grilled fish, crusty bread and a full-bodied red. Looking at this beautiful bowl fills my mind with visions of sea kelp swaying to the waves, bright starfish glistening in the sunlight that pierces the water and ornamental coral gracing the reef. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Brown Butter Coconut Chippy Treats

A recent visit to my old school for my nephew's song and poetry show brought back a lot of sweet memories from my childhood. The cafeteria looked like it hadn't been renovated since I graduated to junior high! My happiest memories from elementary school are from bake sale days (big surprise). The moms would make classic treats like M+M cookies, mini cupcakes and brownies.

Maybe that explains my craving for rice Krispie treats these few months. MONTHS, because I keep buying the huge, family size box of puffed rice, bring it home with the intention to make them and yet, somehow they disappear before I get around to making anything with them. They either end up as a topping for ice cream or are ordered at breakfast time by my favourite patron, li'l Miss Daisy who asks for them as "The Friends Cereal" (you know, because the three elves are friends, after all, right?)

My grandmother used to make rice krispie treats for us every now and then. She would whip up a batch in a jiffy and it always tasted so buttery, toasty and so American. It's just the thing for your 4th of July celebration when the weather is too hot to run the oven, but you need something sweet for dessert.

Temptation is everywhere I look: At the supermarket, grocery store, even the cafeteria at work. Ready-made rice krispie treats are all around. All I have to do is pay the nice lady at the cash register and open the shiny blue wrapper. But, you know me quite well by now. That just will not do. I like to do things my way, at home, in my kitchen, with the best stuff. French butter, toasted coconut, Madagascar vanilla, Belgian dark chocolate chips. RICH is definitely the right word. If you're still not convinced, Daisy will attest to how good they are.

Brown Butter Coconut Chippy Treats
Makes about 2 dozen thin 2" bars

Shopping List
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup coconut
pinch salt
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract
2 cups marshmallows
6 cups puffed rice cereal
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

To-Do List
Line a large baking sheet with foil and spray with nonstick cooking oil.

Melt butter in a deep nonstick pot.
Once the butter is bubbling, add coconut and stir to toast evenly.
Take care not to burn the butter or coconut.

Add salt and vanilla.
Add marshmallows and stir constantly until they are melted.

Turn the heat off and add the puffed rice.
Mix gently to coat the cereal well.
Transfer to the cookie sheet and spread evenly, patting down to smooth
the top.
Sprinkle chocolate chips on top and allow them to melt.

If you are in a hurry to munch on these, transfer the tray to the fridge
for 5 minutes to move the cooling process along.

Once well cooled and the chocolate has solidified again, use a sharp knife
to cut the bars to desired size.

Store in airtight container for several days.

Rice krispie treats really are an American classic, at least to me. They always remind me of my happy days as a kid, riding my bike around the block with my sister, cousins, friends. Who knows when puffed rice cereal was invented or when the first batch of marshmallows was made? What is most important here is the genius who came up with the idea to put the two together along with butter, because everything's better with butter. Since there is no law against changing things up, I added a few things to take them over the top, just in time to celebrate our freedom to do exactly that! Happy 4th of July, y'all! Be safe and party hearty!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Thanks for the Liebster Award!

What goes around comes around. Technology has made the world a smaller place and made it possible for people to connect across vast distances. I'm grateful for the wonderful friendships I have forged online, like with the lovely Janine of the Happy Happy Nester blog.

There, you'll find her recipes, interior design ideas and crafts. I could spend hours just going through her posts. Her sunny style radiates a happy vibe and has inspired me to rearrange some furniture again. Currently, I'm setting up an old world nomad style corner in our living room fashioned out of cushions and Persian kilim pillows.  The handmade dolls are a lucky find imported from Armenia. The little inlaid-wood Moroccan table and two short chairs are gifts from my parents. The delicate bronze antelope on the window sill is a souvenir from a trip to Greece many years ago.

Janine is a joy to know, even though we have never met each other in person. She has graciously nominated me for the thoughtful Liebster Award the purpose of which is to recognize bloggers with less than 3, 000 followers. She has asked that I provide some information about myself, which I hope you find entertaining.

Janine's Questions:

1.  How did you choose your blog name?
     My grandmother gave me the nickname Coco which is a truncated form of my name Colette
     and the kitchen is where you'll find me most often.

2.  What kind of camera do you use for your blog posts?
      Sony NEX-5N 16.1 Megapixel which was a Mother's Day gift from my hubby.

3.  What is your favorite color combination in your house?
      Anything inspired by Nature, a beige foundation with burgundy, green, brown, blue highlights.

4.  Where is your favorite relaxing spot in your house?
      The kitchen, of course, and my new cozy corner.

5.  How many hours a week do you spend working on your blog?
      A good 10 hours testing recipes, taking photos and writing the articles. If I am not happy with the       photos, I will make the dish again and do another photo shoot.

6.  What is your favorite book that provides inspiration for your blog?
     The early Jamie Oliver books have such vibrant photos of the dishes that you want to just dive            into the pages. That's why mine have bite-marks on the corners. 

7.  Are you a morning or night person?
     I do love the smell of the morning air, but I look forward to spending the evening with my family.

8.  What is your favorite movie?
      It's a toss-up between Gigi, Moonstruck and Big Fat Greek Wedding!

9.  What is the best trip you have ever taken?
     Honestly? I can't decide, because I have fond memories from all of my travels. If I had the money,      I'd  just travel around the world over and over again!

10. What is least favorite chore?
      Folding laundry. I would rather clean my bird's cage.

11. Favorite food?
      Chocolate, of course.

11 Random Facts About Me:

* When I start rearranging furniture, it's time for a trip!
* I do not follow trends. I wear whatever I like for as long as I like.
* Red is my fav colour.
* I love going for mani/pedi's with my li'l Daisy.
* I'm always looking at other women's shoes.
* I like to hide power outlets behind furniture (because they're unsightly, of course).
* I sprinkle instant coffee over ice cream and the milk for my cereal.
* My first car was a white Alfa Romeo Milano which earned me 3 speeding tickets.
* I actually do not like getting a massage.
* I don't watch sports, but love the sound of the TV while I read, write, cook.
* I value objects by sentiment, not price tag.

With this Liebster Award, I would like to introduce some of my favourite bloggers.
Cocoa and Lavender
Dana Artinyan
Kitchen Lioness
Taste of Beirut
The Playdate Shoppe

Instructions for my nominees...

*Display the award in your post or sidebar (or both).
*Provide 11 random facts about yourself.
*Answer the questions provided to you by your presenter.
*Nominate 5 new bloggers with less than 3000 followers.
*Provide 11 questions for your nominees to answer.
*List the rules in your post.
*Inform the nominees of your award and provide a link back to your post.

Questions for my nominees...

1. What is the weirdest thing you have ever eaten for breakfast?
2. What innovative recipe can you create to incorporate rose water?
3. Almond butter: Yes or no?
4. Is organic worth the money?
5. What kitchen gadget is your favourite?
6. What is the best time of day and why?
7.Where are you anxious to visit?
8. Ferrari or Maserati?
9. If you could invent a perfume/cologne, what scent would it be?
10. Are you a chocoholic?
11. What's your favourite indulgence?

I do hope you check out my favourite bloggers as well as Janine's site. There is a wealth of fun and positive information out there, if you know where to look. Whom will you nominate for the Liebster?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Cottage Potato Tomato Salad

Andrea's picks for this month's Cottage Cooking Club recipes all looked tempting, but the new potato, tomato and boiled egg salad got my attention. Now, I am not a huge fan of hard-boiled eggs. In fact, I'm quite picky about chook pellets, as my hubby calls them, especially if they are stinky. Deal's off! But, since I reach for free-range eggs, I have noticed they do not have that unbearably fishy smell to them, even when boiled.

Living in Southern California has a lot of advantages, besides the obvious, beautiful weather. There is a big community of Middle Easterners here and grocers cater to the culinary needs of the residents.

I confess I get a bit carried away in the produce section, especially if I am shopping on a grumbling tummy, which explains the pound of long beans and three bunches of radishes destined to rot in my fridge. Who needs three bunches of radishes, anyway?

Besides the plentiful produce section with a wide range of fresh herbs, most Armenian and Persian grocers also offer house-made dishes, even fesenjan which is certainly not as good as Mom's, but still a healthy and delicious heat+serve perfect for a busy work-night.

My intention here is not to campaign for the local markets, as they do so well they really do not need my help in rounding up business. I really just want to tell you that they also offer dips, soups and salads, the most popular of which is likely Olivier. Despite its French name, this salad traces its roots to Russia where the basic potato salad is embellished with both chicken and egg. Perhaps that explains the appeal of Hugh's salad.

This salad has all the classic flavours that pair so well with gently boiled new potatoes. The egg and the onion are present, but there is a newcomer, the tomato. That is the sort of innovative idea you will find in Hugh's books. Who would have thought to toss some cherry tomatoes into a potato salad?  Get your copy and come cook along with us at Andrea's.

This salad is lovely for the summer months and serves well as dinner. It draws smooth, chewy, crunchy textures from the various ingredients, the best of which is the surprising burst of flavour you get when you pop a tomato between your teeth. I just hope Hugh does not mind my throwing some crunchy radishes into the mix.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Easiest, Sexiest Cake in the World

Thanks to Vanilla Sugar Blog, I won myself a couple of Jessie Oleson's Cakespy cookbooks. These are the cutest cookbooks I've ever seen. Since Jessie is an illustrator, she has embellished the photos in her books with cute hand-drawn characters like robots, flowers and such. Everything comes alive on the pages. Even the cookies are smiling. We were planning a visit to my friend's house for the day and I was looking for something decadent to make for them. There are just so many tempting recipes, it is really difficult to choose just one to bake first.

So I asked a dear foodie friend to go through the books and pop little postie notes onto the pages that really looked catchy. There were so many that I had somehow missed, none of which I remember at the moment, but one that I just cannot forget. The postie on the page read "Git in mah belly!"

The name of the cake states that it is better than sex, a claim that can only be validated by someone deemed an expert on both subjects. I will admit with considerable confidence that I know my cakes, the best of which must have chocolate. But, this one has nothing to do with chocolate, not a speck, not even a dusting of cocoa on top.

The appeal of this sinful little number is in its tropical flavours and in its creamy layers. Coconut, vanilla custard, whipped cream and the pretty pineapple, which is rarely seen in desserts these days. Why is that, anyway? This princess of fruits has been the symbol of hospitality in America since the colonial days. Sea captains returned from the Caribbean bearing exotic spices, rum and tropical fruit. Legend holds that the captain posted a pineapple near the entrance of his home to announce his safe return and invite friends to visit for an evening of stories and toasts.

Pineapple is what makes this inviting cake so moist and devilishly delicious. Cake mixes, canned fruit, boxed pudding are not usually on my shopping list, but they do make an appearance every now and then in our kitchen. If you know anything about pineapple plantations, you know that the first crop which is the best and sweetest is reserved for canning and readily available everywhere. But, I prefer the fresh fruit which is plentiful here in California.

Here you have two options. The quickie version uses boxed vanilla cake mix, instant vanilla pudding and canned pineapple. I have also included from-scratch instructions. Which you prefer depends on how eager you are to taste this cake. Of course, everything tastes better if made from scratch, but cake mixes are really yummy nowadays - No one will ever know you cheated. Either way, once you taste have this one, you will realize you no longer need chocolate. I'm going to make you a believer.

Easiest, Sexiest Cake in the World
Inspired by Cakespy 

Note: The instructions look long, but you already know what to do. I'm just
documenting the details for newby bakers.

Serves 8 (or 1 who doesn't share)

What to Get
For the Cake
1 box vanilla cake mix or homemade
3 free-range eggs
1 cup water
1 lemon, juice + zest
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract
pinch salt
For the Custard
1 box instant vanilla pudding or homemade
2 cups cold milk
For the Finish
1 cup shredded coconut, toasted
1 can crushed pineapple or 1 cup fresh, mashed
2 cups heavy cream
4 Tb powdered sugar

What to Do
Preheat oven to 350*F.

Grease and flour 2 8-inch round cake pans.
Juice and zest one lemon.

Prepare cake according to the box instructions, except when measuring the water, include the lemon juice.
Then add the lemon zest, vanilla and a pinch of salt into the mix for extra flavour.

Pour batter into the prepared cake pans and bake 20-25 minutes, until you can smell the cakes.

Make the instant pudding by stirring the mix powder with cold milk.
Chill in refrigerator while the cake is baking.

Clean and chop fresh pineapple, if using. Mash with a fork. Measure about 1 cup. Set aside.

Transfer coconut to a nonstick pan and set onto the stove at medium-high heat until fragrant and toasty.
Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Remove cake from oven. Use a fork to poke holes into it and top with crushed pineapple.

While the cake is cooling, whip the heavy cream with some powdered sugar.
Spread the vanilla pudding over the pineapple-top.
Spread the whipped cream over the pudding layer.
Sprinkle toasted coconut on top.

Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Serve with icy homemade lemonade.

I am not a religious person, but found myself praying to God, Buddha, all the gods and goddesses to give me the strength to resist cutting the cake until we arrived at my friend's house. It was a very looooooong drive, y'all!

There are very few troubles in life that cannot be remedied with cake. No matter where I go, whatever I see and taste, I somehow always find my way back to cake. Cake announces a celebration, even on Ordinary Tuesday.

Last night, I could not wait to get out of the office, slap my apron on and hit my baking station. Everything the recipe called for was already in my pantry. It was just so simple to make and fun to set up all those pretty layers. But, I could not work fast enough to see how it tastes.

The mercury is reaching for the stars already, with the evenings steady in the high 70's. This is not exactly the best weather for baking, but I was not about to let the thermostat stop me. My trusty little toaster oven saved me once again, because I had to see for myself what all the hubbub was all about.

Homemade is always best and with this recipe you do have that option. I made this cake again (big surprise) for my mother's birthday. She is not a fan of coconut, but absolutely loved it. The box + can version came out delicious, too. Stock your pantry well, because this cake can be made on a whim, in a snap, as soon as you feel you need cake.

I can not honestly say whether or not this cake really is better than sex. What I can tell you is the thing we all need is to sit on that swing on the front porch, counting stars, munching on a slice of this inviting little cake and forgetting all our troubles.