Goat Cheese Puffs and Kir Royale

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We live in an age where convenience is king and attention spans have diminished to focus on a steady stream of 140-character sound bites and grab-and-go eats. Taking time to enjoy a meal or having a lengthy, real life conversation that extends beyond a thumbs up “like” on a Facebook post are going the way of the dinosaurs. A sit down meal, which used to mark a dinner with the family or close friends, is now a rare occasion involving copious amounts of preplanning and synchronization between the technologies and timeframes of various people all operating within distinctly individualized schedules. In an extreme backlash against all of this twenty-first century behavior, I am committed to make the moments that I eat actually mean something. And not something in the special way of birthdays or anniversary occasions, but special in the way that reminds me that life is in the ordinary hours. Life is right now.

The one time a week when I cook for the Cute Gardener and myself is a time when I can slow down for a moment and reflect on what I want to convey with my efforts. I am not merely making a meal or a dish but crafting an experience that bubbles up from someplace inside of me first, borne of a feeling, and then crafted outward. It is not about flipping through a list of recipes but rather culling from an internal well, something conjured that tantalizes all the senses, rather than just the tongue.

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Recently, I finished reading An Extravagant Hunger by my ex-Stanford writing class teacher Anne Zimmerman. The book was a biography of the famous food writer MFK Fisher and something that rang true throughout Fisher’s life was her absolute commitment to enjoying food and drink, even if eating solo or making a simple lunch at home. It also made me recall all the meals I had read Fisher describe in her books that were accompanied at the end by Crème de Cassis, the dark red liqueur made from black currants, which had always given me a tinge of romantic fantasy in the gut but which I had never yet tried. I researched and discovered an elegant drink, the Kir Royale, which is made from floating fine French Champagne atop a few tablespoons of the liqueur and decided to build an appetizer course around this drink; one that would equally fulfill my many deep hungers that had been percolating in my mind regarding the making and sharing of food.

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Dorie Greenspan’s goat cheese mini puffs were the perfect solution. Made from her exquisite choux dough recipe and accentuated with a whipped goat cheese filling, the resulting clouds of herb-spiked goodness added a light and airy bite between sips of the heavier, sweet cocktail. I served the drinks in fine stemless  flutes on our everyday, ordinary coffee table as we came together at the end of a regular old workday, shoving unread stacks of newspaper aside to partake in our ongoing obsession with Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition of classy bites with our regular scheduled television programming made our evening special, with nothing more to celebrate other than our lust for life and enjoying the present moment with each other—and that in this day and age is becoming ever so priceless.

Discovering My Inner Troll Through Oat-Laced Griddlecakes

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There are so many cookbooks in the world today, churned out every minute by our latest superstar chefs or directed by our palate’s latest obsessions for Paleo or gluten-free or raw or rustic French cuisines, so I tend to turn a blind eye to building my own collection because of the overwhelm. I am already behind in the few that I have. I’ve made under a dozen of the dishes in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table and the collected recipes from one of our favorite restaurants in L.A., Scarpetta (heartbreakingly-deceased) glowers intimidatingly from its place on our shelf adjacent to the Cute Gardener’s French Laundry bible. These are further accentuated by my slim volumes of Middle Eastern delights and tiny glimpses into the jewels of the Mediterranean and a random Thai or grain bowl assortment bought because the deal was just to good to pass up. But the truth is I am not a big cookbook kind of girl.

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But when Clint Marsh, co-editor (along with Karima Cammell) of The Troll Cookbook asked if I would like a review copy, I was pleasantly intrigued. A book not centered on the latest fashionable food trends or embedded with highly personal musings of an egocentric Michelin-man or woman? Yes, please. What I discovered after reading the book from cover-to-cover in one afternoon, hilariously enough, is that I just might have some troll within me.

Trolls get a bad rap in polite society. Yes, they may be strange in visual appearance ranging from the gnomish to the gigantic, and yes, they may eschew participation in the regular world, but it’s only because they burn up in casual daylight! They are highly feared and disregarded due to one particular delicacy of their diet. According to the book, trolls like many people are carnivores, although unlike our human predilection for pig, duck, cow, turkey or chicken, their tastes are geared toward us—the man and woman. WE pique their biggest cravings. So yes, I understand our aversion yet to judge would position me as a hypocrite because everyone knows there is not a pig belly I can refuse. So I will not, judge that is. Yet this is apparently what renders trolls scary in all the folklore and fairy tales that are delightfully peppered throughout the book amongst the conversion tables—what does a gnome-handful equate to in person form? Or a slip, drip, flicker or fist?

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On the lighter side, trolls sing to my heart with their gleeful foraging spirits that follow the seasons of the year to plan their menus full of locally available ingredients that can be found on forest floors, in musty, mushroom filled caves, and on many a mountain side or slab of tree bark. I found myself loving every recipe in this book and finding my taste buds teased by the idea of making some old fashioned griddlecakes this past weekend. The recipe is below—it turned out three days worth of breakfast plates overflowing with oat-nutty, tart buttermilk, salt of the earth goodness. Next on my agenda? The dog-eared pages for porridge fritters, quick bread, sourdough, limoncello, creamed winter greens, spring vegetable soup, sweet carrot soup, grilled figs and cheese, beets and eggs, eggs in oil with sumac, ricotta tart, jam bars and fig salami. And of course, the complex and unique Srikund (a strained yogurt with cardamom and saffron dessert) and Rumtopf (a rum pot combining a medley of alcohol, fruits and sugar made in a crock.)

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GRIDDLECAKES
(Word for word from The Troll Cookbook with * addendum notes of mine below.)

Greasy griddlecakes made from oats (or any rolled grain) are a favorite troll meal for breakfast or lunch. The trolls show off by flipping the griddlecakes without a spatula. (Which I was tragically unable to do.)

1-1/2 c. rolled oats (or any flattened grains)
2 c. buttermilk or whole milk
2 eggs
1 spoon vanilla extract
6 spoons of maple syrup
¼ c. melted butter or cooking oil (plus more for the pan)
½ spoon salt
An open handful of flour
¼ spoon of grated nutmeg
¼ spoon cinnamon

In a large mixing bowl, stir together all the ingredients in the order listed. Add more flour until the batter thickens to your liking but is still runny enough to pour easily. A thin batter will give you crispy griddlecakes, and a batter that’s too thick will make your griddlecakes doughy. Add berries if you’d like.

Melt some butter in a griddle over medium-low heat and splash on scoops of batter. Flip the griddlecakes just once and only after they are riddled with bubbles. The second side of a griddlecake cooks faster, but if it offers any resistance let it cook a little longer before lifting it off with a spatula. Serve your griddlecakes as you cook. If any of your fellow trolls like greasy griddlecakes, serve them the first few from the batch, as these will have soaked up more butter.

Cover griddlecakes with syrup, honey, chocolate, fruit, jam, yogurt, whipped cream, or anything you think tastes good. If you’d prefer a savory meal instead of a sweet one, make larger griddlecakes and roll them up with slices of meat and cheese.

*
I used oats bought in the bulk bin at Whole Foods.

“Spoon” means teaspoon in troll speak.

I used a cast iron pan rather than a grill so it was important to pour tiny rounds rather than a big flapjack disc in order to get the cakes to cook nicely. The first side took about five minutes to bubble and then 30 seconds on the second side.

Use as little flour as possible as to avoid damp cakes in the middle. These are very nice that way, dependent more on the taste of the buttermilk and oats.

I threw blueberries into the raw batter and it was awesome!

I topped mine with a mere drizzle of organic maple syrup, delicious.

Chez Panisse-Inspired Strawberry Salad

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My bucket list in life vacillates from year to year. Things like hot air ballooning fall off as I age and become more protective of my life. Things like “visit Ibiza” turn into “visit the South of France” as my tastes evolve from the love of nightlife to a more refined love of charming small towns and foreign flora. But one thing that has remained on my list for decades is Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California restaurant owned and operated by sublimely seasonal chef Alice Waters. As far as chefs go, her style of cooking fresh, simple and delicious food from seasonally available, local sources has always matched my palate’s deepest hankerings for the good, the true and the natural.

A week ago, I was able to check Chez Panisse off my list when the Cute Gardener and I stopped in for lunch on a dappled sunny afternoon. Seated upstairs in the wooden, arts-and-crafts movement dining room, we enjoyed a taste of the famous roast chicken, a duck confit, fried green onions, smoky roasted tomato soup and a nectarine galette with the brownest, crispest crust I’ve had yet. But one small dish, a starter salad dressed in tomato vinaigrette was the biggest source of inspiration for me. It made me want to stretch my own capabilities from my normal salad dressing fare at home, which typically consists of an emulsion of shallots, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar and oil. It made me want to stretch my creativity.

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This morning our garden was full of growth so I decided to create something new with Waters’ philosophy in mind. I took what was fresh and available: avocado, purslane leaves, Asian greens, green grapes and strawberries. Then as the greens dried from a quick wash, I looked around in my pantry to see what might make an unusual dressing. A stray bit of goat cheese caught my eye and I decided to make a sweet summer dressing using the strawberries in a puree. To the puree of cheese and berry, I added lemon juice and olive oil and voila! I had a new vinaigrette, silky smooth and sweet with just a bit of tang.

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The unctuous creaminess of the dressing was calling out for avocado. And all that was missing was some texture so I added sunflower seed, whole grapes and chopped strawberries for variation on top of the greens. The purslane leaves, who many ignore as a mere garden weed, made for a beautiful garnish but also a nice dose of Omega 3s.

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As I ate my salad, it felt good to know that very little labor or resources had been drained in the making of this dish nor were there any pesky chemicals or genetic modifications to my fruits and veggies. Best of all, the ingredients had come from my own home—both backyard and pantry, in the spirit of grow your own.