Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Lemon Frenzy #1

Planting those Meyer lemon bushes eleven years ago is really paying off. We get huge crops several times a year. The Meyer lemon is rarely available in your local grocery, so growing your own is the best way to be assured a plentiful supply at low cost. Many greengrocers and organic food stores, such as Whole Foods, do carry them, but they can be pricey. Compared to the common Eureka lemon, the Meyer has thinner and softer skin, is juicier, and is slightly sweeter. With hints of tangerine flavor, it makes for a fine lemon curd, lemon meringue pie, lemon bars…I could go on and on.

This December, with a huge batch ready to pick, we had our designs set on making Limoncello for Christmas. Every year, we try to make a portion of handcrafted gifts, usually food. A bit of research found us with an easy way to use up the abundance of lemons. Not very time consuming, the Limoncello recipe can yield good bang for the buck, as well as putting smiles on the recipients’ faces.

We made two batches, two different recipes, two different base liquors, with a modification here and there. I sat down one day during a football game and zested all the lemons. Took a while, but was easy enough. The combined liquor and the lemons sit around for a couple of weeks, melding flavors. Then a basic simple syrup is made to cut the alcohol and provide the sweet thickness common to Limoncello. Packaging is pretty simple, in various-sized bottles collected or bought, and topped off with a ribbon and special label that my designer daughter whipped up, et voila!—a bottle of tasty liqueur is born.

The first recipe we used has an everclear base. Pure grain alcohol provides the punch behind the lemons.

20 lemons, with skins cleaned
2 - 750ml Everclear (150 proof or above)
5 cups sugar
6 cups water

Zest the lemons with a vegetable peeler, making sure that no white pith is discernable. Place the lemons in a large glass jar or crock, add the vodka, and cover the jar. Let this jar set undisturbed at room temperature for no less than 10 days. When ready to proceed, combine sugar and water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and cook until thickened, approximately 10 minutes. Take off the heat and cool to room temperature. Add syrup to vodka, stir well. Let sit for one hour. Strain the liquid and bottle it. Best to store this in the freezer.

The second recipe is based on standard vodka. You don’t have to use Grey Goose or other costly vodka. A mid-ranged vodka will do just fine, and if you really want to experiment, get the cheap stuff and see how it compares. As with the first recipe, we doubled the batch, but we also made a secret modification to this version, which increased the flavor. (We might share it if you ask nicely.)

15 Meyer lemons, with skins cleaned
2 - 750ml 100-proof vodka
4 cups sugar
5 cups water

Zest the lemons with a vegetable peeler, making sure that no white pith is discernable. Place the lemons in a large glass jar or crock, add the vodka, and cover the jar. Let this jar set undisturbed at room temperature for no less than 10 days and no more than 40 days. When ready to proceed, combine sugar and water in a saucepan and cook until thickened, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Take off the heat and cool to room temperature. Add syrup to vodka, cover, and let sit for no less than 10 days and no more than 40 days. At this point you will strain the liquid and bottle it. Best to store this in the freezer.

We made several gift baskets with small liqueur glasses, a bottle of the Limoncello, a small package of homemade biscotti, and a few beautiful fresh lemons. And given that we had made double batches of each, we bottled small gift bottles that we handed out as parting gifts for guests over the holidays.

Now, it looks like I have 6-8 weeks before the next batch of Meyers ripens. And what a whopper it will be.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Foreign food (well...kinda)

When I think of unusual cuisine, I think of Southeast Asia, Russia, Turkey, not Erie, Pennsylvania. Clearly I don’t spend enough time out of California, but I found a whole other world of food in this northeastern state. While I don’t consider myself a true food aficionado, I do regularly cook Thai, Indian, Mexican, and Greek cuisine at home, and I was unprepared for the unfamiliarity that Erie had to offer.

We began our culinary delight by having dinner the night I arrived at a small café. The menu seemed innocuous enough: chicken fried steak, pork chops, burgers and salads. Being on a modified Atkins diet, I opted for the jerked chicken salad. It came with fries, but I reasoned that I could foist those off on one of the kids to enjoy. Needless to say, I was surprised when my bowl came with the fries on top of the chicken and the salad, covered in dressing. My hosts informed me that the meat salads were all served this way and saw nothing unusual about it. Health-conscious, heart-of-the-salad-bowl California would have a thing or two to say about that.

Being open to new types of things, I broke my normal diet and ate the salad…the whole thing. It was quite good. Unusual but good. The only downside was that I had to forgo any type of dessert, as I had blown my whole day’s worth of carbs on one salad.

Over the next two days we visited an array of fine culinary institutions, mired in tradition, regional specialties, and always bustling with locals. After a morning at the park, we headed to Smith’s Hot Dog Stand. I had the ever-popular dog with bacon and cheese. Calorie- and fat-laden, it was heavenly. After picking up the kids from school, we headed over to opening day at the Whippy Dip, a soft-serve ice-cream joint that was just opening after the spring frost. The specialty here was the twinkle kote, an crunchy ice-cream topping that has a flavor not unlike crushed cones. It’s a big hit. The cones leaving the window are predominantly covered in the stuff. The soft-serve ice cream underneath is typical of any you will find across the nation, but the fact that it is the first day Whippy Dip is open for the year and that no one has ingested one of their staple items since last fall, the ice cream tastes heavenly. Kind of like a really cold beer on a really hot day. It hits the spot, and the smiles on all the patrons, young and old alike, attests to this fact.

Next day, in keeping with my standard of searching out good chocolate on road trips, we made a stop at Erie’s institution, Pulakos 926 Over 100 years of tradition go into this chocolate. I’ve been to Erie four times in the last 14 years, and each time I make a pilgrimage to Pulakos. I love their chocolate-dipped strawberries and sponge candy. In between visits, the sponge candy always finds it way under my Christmas tree.

Last morning, we drove on down to the older, seedier side of town to Mighty Fine Donuts. No Krispy Kremes here. My favorite? The peanut butter-filled donut. Mmmmmm. By now, as you can see, I have totally blown off my diet. A difficult decision, but when in Rome…..

I did pass up the beef on wick, ox roast sandwich, and ring bologna for lunch. On my last nite, for dinner we head over for a family barbecue. In California, that normally means a mixed grill, chicken, ribs, steak. In Erie, wings are the thing. A whole mess of wings. Spicy, blue cheese dippin’, bone-suckin wings. Along with the wings is a fruit platter. Not the strawberry, kiwi, pineapple platter. This one is typical fruit, like apples and bananas, along with an unusual dipping sauce. The white concoction was made from cream cheese and marshmallow fluff. Apparently the cream cheese cuts the sweetness a bit, and bulks up the consistency, so you are not wearing drips of marshmallow crème. Interesting combination. Never would have thought of it. In fact, I have never even purchased marshmallow crème. A fitting end to a trip to the other side of the…country. But it did made me think…. What else can I make with this gooey concoction?

Any suggestions?

Tea Party

Last fall when I was planning to visit my brother, my daughter sent me off with “real” British tea. Having spent 6 months studying in London, she was an avid proponent of the leaf, and she had just gotten a huge stash shipped from relatives in the U.K. The tea, along with shortbread, would make for an inaugral tea party with my niece (10) and nephew (7).

In between soccer games, we headed to the kitchen to make shortbread from the family recipe. My nanny (great-grandmother) had brought the recipe with her from Scotland in 1925, when my papa was just 16. My English grandmother (nana) learned from her, and handed the recipe down to me (totally skipping my mother, who isn’t known for her baking prowess). My children grew up making the recipe, so it was time to pass it on to Kendall and Connor.

The thing about shortbread, or at least our recipe, is the ease and fun of making it. My nana always emphasized that you had to use your hands to meld the butter and sugar together. The heat from your hands, she told me, is the secret ingredient. Taking it a step further, we mix the whole dough with our hands. One bowl, no spoon, easy clean-up. This, combined with the wonderful flavor, makes it a favorite for children.

Nanny’s Shortbread

½ lb. butter (2 sticks), room temp
½ c. granulated sugar
2 ¼ cups flour
1 T cornstarch

In medium bowl, place butter and sugar. Using your hand, work the sugar into the butter until fully incorporated. Add the flour and cornstarch gradually, mixing after each addition. Once thoroughly incorporated, your dough should be “short”, meaning crumbly. Pull it all into a ball and pat it into a square or round 8-inch or 9-inch pan. Score with the tines of a fork.
Bake 325º for approximately 35 minutes
until just lightly browned on the edges.

After the last soccer game, we assembled in the kitchen to prepare for the party. To my absolute shock and horror, I found that my brother does not own a tea pot, of any kind. And he doesn’t even own a working tea kettle. I was forced to boil water on the stove and use the coffeepot to brew the tea in. Major foul. Especially in our family, where our ancestors came over from the U.K. through Ellis Island, drinking tea the whole way. I, myself, have a large tea pot collection, inadvertently collected over the years. Some were wedding gifts, some were family heirlooms, some were bought abroad, and one is even a gift from the Taiwan government. They are lovingly stored on a shelf in my kitchen for all to see, and to be used on a regular basis. But today we would have to make do with the white mugs that came with their everyday dinnerware and the glass carafe from the coffeemaker. At least the shortbread was served and plated on dainty heart-shaped plates. You know, presentation is half the battle.

The children were none the wiser. They loved their tea and shortbread and we lingered at the table a long time. And they had just given me the idea for their Christmas gift.

Fast forward two months. I am again visiting my brother for the weekend, so we schedule another tea party. This time we are more prepared. They are now the proud owners of a whole tea set: tea pot, sugar, creamer, 6 cups and saucers, and 6 dessert plates. To celebrate and christen the new china, we go all out. I make meringue kisses with chocolate chips, kaffir lime bars (on a shortbread crust), and a friend brings over cream puffs. My sister-in-law digs out the tea from my last visit, and although I have to boil water yet again in a saucepan, no one is the wiser, as I am able to brew it properly in the tea pot. And on a bright sunny day in January in Southern California, we have a proper British tea on the back patio.

So the tradition continues…..

Evil Piece of Meat

For a change of pace, we decided on an old-fashioned corned beef for dinner this week. On Tuesday night, I got the crockpot out, as a reminder to myself to get the meat started prior to leaving for work. And it was a good reminder, too. Plopped the slab in, turned the crockpot on high, and plugged the whole shebang in.

Fast forward 8 hours, I return home from work, check on the corned beef and find…..cold meat floating in water. My investigation revealed a faulty outlet. So, no corned beef tonite. I reset the outlet, turn the crockpot on low and let it do its thing all night long. Sure enough, when I get up and head for the treadmill, the aroma of cooked meat hits me in the face. I turn it off, pull the meat out and let it cool. Before going to work, I put it in the fridge.

5pm – day 2: I call my daughter to peel some potatoes and put the meat, carrots, and potatoes in the crockpot to finish cooking. She is willing to do it, but being the good daughter that she is, she has already washed the crockpot, not knowing that I would want to reuse the broth. So we go to Plan B. I drive home and turn on the oven to heat the meat. Throw it in the oven, move on to other chores. Daughter goes to peel the potatoes and cook them in plain water to go with meat. Potatoes are soft, starting to rot. No potatoes. Corned beef and carrots? It’ll have to do. Except…I’ve turned on the wrong oven. The goddamned piece of meat is cold after 45 minutes in the oven, the cold oven.

We give up. We throw the meat the garbage, feeling that the universe is trying to tell us something. We open a bottle of champagne, celebrating our near miss from some sort of terrible food poisoning, and drink our dinner instead…..

Maybe I need to stick to what I know, and give up on the typical American food!