September 30, 2012

whisk me away

Best birthday ever? Yes, yes, I think it might have been. 

This breakfast table, glistening with rose colored (and flavored) confiture and delicate porcelain bowls, which greeted me on the morning of my 30th birthday, and the two consecutive mornings after, was almost better than a birthday cake. The whole weekend was better than a birthday cake, which is good because there actually wasn't any cake, just lots of chocolate mousse, cobblestone streets and cobalt blue seas. 

It was only a week ago that we were sitting down to breakfast - always the same table under the olive tree - but in the way that vacation adds perspective and a reference point to daily life, it feels like it was a lifetime ago. There we were then, basking in the amber sunshine, and here we are now, huddled inside with our tea cups and wools socks watching the rain and a movie. For a girl who loves a rainy day as much as a sunny day, it's been a great week. 30 is looking good so far, which shouldn't be surprising considering many of you told me it would be great, the best even.

Our hotel was wonderful, a little hillside hideaway near the village of Mougins. It is called Les Rosées, and I discovered it while poking around the Mr & Mrs Smith website. In the typical way that travel itineraries take shape in this household I spotted the hotel, checked flights and we were booked within a couple hours. 

It's a small hotel, only five rooms, one of which is a gypsy caravan parked in the garden. We stayed in the main house, on the second floor, in a room draped in luxurious fabrics and complete with its own terrace. The stone flooring topped with simple woven rugs, the lightly brushed ochre walls and the blush colored headboard and chair were relaxing just to look at. We pulled the heavy stone colored satin curtains closed at night and slept soundly in the still darkness, so soundly that we almost didn't make it to breakfast, just sneaking in by 10am.  It's nice to be pampered some times.

And see those roses that I photographed? Well that very same evening they were in our room, tucked in a vase with some sienna tinged foliage and tiny red berries falling from an elegant, reaching, twig. 
We are guilty of trying to do and see too much in such a short weekend. We spent more time in the car than we probably imagined, but we did see lots of hill top villages and coastal vistas, and all that time in the car tuned us into what the popular songs in the South of France are right now. We listened to the Virgin Radio (pronounced Ver-gene Rad-e-o) station, which played I Follow Rivers, the Lykke Li song, pretty much on repeat. We consider it our Cote d'Azur theme song. Although it might become our blanket fall 2012 theme song because we are listening to it right now too. 

"you're my river running high, run deep, run wild..."

(mom, you'll like this one, it's gotta good beat)
Somehow the swimming season passed me by without a dip in the lake here in Zurich, which upsets me to no end. I figured a swim in the Mediterranean would more than make up for it. We waded in, walking on the slippery rocks until they fell away and we fell with them. It was a memorable swim, bobbing there in the super salty water, the rocky shores just within reach. 

30 you are going to be good, great even!
As I end this post I want to say thank you, thank you for all your well wishes and birthday cheer. You showered me with love and ensured that this oh-so-scary milestone birthday was my best birthday yet. 

ps. still listening to the song, on repeat. That's the way I do music - find one song and loop it until I'm sick of it. Thankfully Zach is on board with this song. 

September 21, 2012

it's a fennel party!

(watch with sound!)

So today is the day I have been dreading for sometime now. It's my birthday, a big one, the big 3-0 one. This is the birthday that tips me, willing or not, into my thirties and the unfathomable birthdays that follow. There are a lot of things I know; I know it will be a great year, a great decade, a great time. But all that goodness ahead doesn't mean that I am accepting the next step without at least a little whimper. 

Okay fine, so a little whimper turned into a fairly loud whimper, a whimper loud enough for friends and family to hear, because like you cuddle a puppy to quiet its cries and bury a baby in your bosom when it starts to wail, I have been held and hugged, loved and silenced. A day I was considering spending in hiding has turned out to be one of the most wonderful of wonderful days. 

You know how sometimes a lot of little things align to make one great thing? Well this time a lot of big things aligned to make one awesome thing. First my friends in Zürich, the friends that are really more like family than friends, threw me, little old me, a surprise party. And best of all, I was totally 100% out-of-my-mind-full-of-gratitude surprised. There I was thinking we were going to eat lasagna and play board games and the next thing I know I'm thanking the heavens above that I had the wherewithal to wash my hair and change out of my sweats and slippers. I spent the evening drinking bubbles, eating truffles, chatting with friends and bathing in all the love and luck that found me in my 30th year. 
(see that iPhone that Laura is holding? My friend Katie, who lives in Singapore, woke up in the middle of the night to skype the surprise! These friends of mine, I tell you!)

The night was full of surprises. There was the surprise!!! we are throwing you a party and you didn't know about it surprise, and then there was the surprise!!! we've made you an amazingly touching video and we managed to get your friends at home to make one too surprise! Holy cow, these friends of mind sure know how to make a girl feel special as she closes one decade and starts another. The videos were touching and funny, full of love and those warm cozy feelings that bind friend together. To share the videos here might be a bit much, but I trust you watched the snip-it above? The one with the fennel, carrots, blueberries and dinosaurs? If you haven't I trust the mention of fennel paired with dinosaurs will peak your interest. How amazing is it?! Sundance worthy I think. My friend Perrin made it and she is all types of talented. I've watched it at least 987 times. The effort, the time, the genius that went into it, all for me on my day, leave me with my mouth open and my heart full.
And, dear reader, it continues. Even though I am writing this from Zürich, by the time you read it I will be basking in the late summer sun in a little hill town called Mougins, which is just North of Cannes. Zach heard my whimpers and decided to smother me with French food and wine, scenic vistas and winding drives through quaint towns. Had I known I'd be quieted by such splendor I would have done a lot more whimpering over the years. (That's not really true, I generally hate whining).

Oh, and he surprised me with the most wonderful birthday present - a five day cooking class in Paris!

And then of course there is my family who never fail to shower me with birthday love. My mom faithfully reminds me every year that I was a thiry-hour labor or love. Well mom, now I've officially been alive for as many hours as you were in labor :) And I can't wait to celebrate with you in Berlin! That's right, my parents just booked tickets to Berlin/Zürich in early November. Happy Birthday to moi!

Let me repeat how lucky and loved I feel, lucky and loved indeed! Thank you thank you EVERY last one of you who has helped me welcome 30 with a smile on my face.

So even though I never imagined I'd usher in my 30th year with fennel, it seems ever appropriate. This recipe is from a book called Simple French Food by Richard Olney, which I purchased on one of my Amazon buying sprees, but which has spent more time tucked between The Art of Eating and The Tummy Trilogies than in the kitchen. It is not a book light on praise. Alice Waters writes that "for twenty years Richard Olney's Simple French Food has been one of my greatest sources of inspiration for cooking at Chez Panisse." Now if that doesn't make you want to go on an Amazon spree then I don't know what will. I like it because even though it is simple French food, I still had to flip past recipes for Beignets d'Animelles (Lamb Testicles), Orielles, Couennes, et Queues (Ears, Rinds & Tails) and Lapin en Papillotes (Rabbit Papillotes) before arriving at the poultry section of the book.
All that flipping led me to this scrumptious recipe for sautéed chicken and fennel. Scrumptious is a silly word, I know, but it fits this pairing of crisp skinned moist meat with sweet garlicky caramelized fennel perfectly. It is a combination I wouldn't have thought of otherwise, but which I will continue making for many dinners in my 30s.

// Sautéed Chicken and Fennel //
serves 4 - slightly adapted (no liver, heart, gizzard sauté to accompany as suggested)

4 lbs bulb fennel
1/3 cup olive oil
2 heads garlic, cloves separated, papery outer skin removed, but unpeeled
1 chicken cut up, with skin. 
1/2 cup dry white wine
chopped parsley

Prepare the fennel by removing the tough outer stalks and pulling the "strings", like you would with celery, from the outer surface of the exposed stalk. Split the bulbs and then parboil them for 5-6 minutes. Drain and then place in large skillet with the olive oil and garlic cloves, cooking over medium heat for about 30minutes, flipping the bulbs once and a while to ensure even coloring and caramelizing.  Once softened and browned transfer to a large gratin dish with a slotted spoon (keeping the oil in the pan). Grind pepper over the fennel and then place in a hot oven to keep warm while you cook the chicken. 

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Sauté in the same olive oil that you cooked the fennel in, browning on all sides until nicely crispy and colored. Place the chicken over the fennel. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scrapping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Continue stirring over medium heat until the liquid has reduced by about half. Pour the sauce over the chicken and then cover the dish with aluminum foil (as Olney says, this prevents drying out from direct contact with het while permitting the braising juices to evaporate and reduce). Cook in a 375º oven for  35-40 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil, toss the chopped parsley on top and serve. 

September 12, 2012

artichokes and aging

When we begin peeling away the light purple-tinged inner leaves, the ones that rest gently on top of the hairy choke, all conversation stops and we both wait and watch for the unveiling. I usually cup the bottom of the artichoke in my left hand and with a knife in my right hand run the blade under the concentric bristles of the choke, lifting with what feels like enough pressure to release the choke from the heart in one rounded slice, but inevitably ending up with multiple pieces that I pinch and pull off the heart with my fingertips. As far as we're concerned, at least right now, it's one of the most captivating eating experiences there is. Think about it, you've just finished the leaves, grabbing them off from the base and scrapping the flesh and accompanying aioli off with your teeth, discarding the wounded petals into a separate dish meant just for them, a petal graveyard of sorts, and then waiting for you is the warm and delicate fleshy heart. It's an edible prize at the end of an edible hunt. 

We've eaten five artichokes in the past two weeks, you could say we're on a streak or you could say we're making up for lost time considering those five artichokes are also the only artichokes we've steamed and eaten in the past ten years. I'll admit that until now I was intimidated by artichokes: I knew there was a heart and a choke - unsettling terms when dealing with a vegetable - and to get to either you had to do a lot of trimming and steaming. I was also scared off by the particular eating patterns demanded by an artichoke; it always seemed borderline inappropriate to clamp your teeth over the flesh while dragging the petal out of your mouth only to discard it in a communal bowl. The petals continue to pile until you get to the choke and the heart - the goal of all this eating - which is fabulous and great and everything, but what on earth do you do with either?
I was pretty content to leave the artichoke questions unanswered and to continue eating it in its more adulterated form, such as bubbling in a sea of mayonnaise and cheese. My mom makes great artichoke dip. She skips the trimming and petal tossing and buys little glass jars of artichoke hearts soaked in olive oil and seasoning. The pre-cooked and seasoned hearts make for easy work; simply chop them, toss them with parmesan cheese and just enough mayo to get the cheese and hearts to adhere before spooning into a casserole dish and topping with a layer of parmesan cheese that will brown and crisp in the oven. I wouldn't say it was a staple in our house, not like the Bonbel cheese wrapped in Pillsbury croissant dough and baked until the cheese seeps out the cracks, no it wasn't like that, but it did have the ability to linter at the party longer, which the pastry baked Bonbel did not have thank to my dad and brother, who unconcerned for the appetites of our guests would eat the cheese pastry themselves in ever competing slices. The artichoke dip never faced the same competition; it sat there with it's crispy crust waiting for chips or red pepper slices to break into its gooey under layer. Although people indulged and dipped there were often leftovers that I would spoon onto toasted sourdough bread the next day. Dip and leftover dip were the extent of my artichoke eating. 

I was happy to continue eating easy-artichokes, but then we moved to Europe, which is a land of artichoke loving folk, and after my success jumping on the apricot bandwagon I figured I'd jump on the artichoke bandwagon as well. (Note that although I seem to a be the bandwagon-jumping type that I would never jump on a tuna fish sandwich wagon, nope, not ever). 
The artichoke wagon might be full, but it's not full of young people, that's for sure. No, the people on the wagon look more like this...
a couple spotted at the market in Beaunne last December

and like this...
a scene in Puglia (I forget what town) from April

So more than a confetti birthday cake to mark my upcoming plunge into old age, it seems that the artichoke sitting on my kitchen counter is, in its own way, a birthday token.

Why do we leave artichokes for old people? Are we scared that we might trim them wrong, or steam them for too long, or bare our teeth too much when eating the flesh? I'll admit that I was scared of the trimming part, terrified that I'd trim to much, but as it turns out that's pretty close to impossible. Our friends Aude and Rus shared an artichoke with us the other night and they admitted to being turned off my an incidence whereby an artichoke wasn't steamed for long enough. And then there was the artichoke we shared with our friend Jess who asked when we got to the hairy covered heart, "now what?"
Five artichokes in we've realized that you just need to plunge forward, with a few thoughts in mind: first, trim just enough so that you don't poke your fingers on the pointy petals and so that the globe fits in your steamer; second, it's better to cook for too long than too little so aim for 45 minutes, but check after 30 by sticking a knife in the base - if it goes in easily it's done; third, when the petals stop yielding meat as you get to the center, pluck them away to reveal the choke; and then, with the choke, slice at the base of the bristles, where bristle meats the heart and separate the hair from the heart however works for you, there is no wrong or right way, you just dont' want to eat it; and lastly, with the heart, simply slice and eat. 

Oh, and a last thing, eat it with aioli, enough of this melted butter business. 

// steamed artichoke with garlic aioli //

1 large globe artichoke

1 egg yolk
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 teaspoons grain mustard
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt and pepper
1/3 cup olive oil

Pour water in the bottom pot of a steamer and bring it to a simmer. 

While the water is heating prep your artichoke. Remove any tough leaves around the base and and stem of the artichoke. Trim off the tips of the petals and then cut enough off of the top so that the artichoke fits in the pot. If yours came with a steam, pare it down with a knife until it the softer light green-white reveals itself. If the stem doesn't fit in the pot, you can cut it off and place it next to the head. Place the artichoke in the steamer basket, cover and steam for about 45 minutes, but check after 30 and continuing for longer if needed. 

With the artichoke steaming away make the aioli. Place the egg yolk, garlic, mustard, lemon juice salt and pepper in a blender or the cup for your immersion blender and blend, adding the oil in a very slow drizzle, until all of the oil is incorporated and the aioli has thickened. 

September 04, 2012

a zürich plum crumble

Yesterday, out of nowhere, I threw apple slices in a pot and dumped cinnamon on top and stirred and stewed until the apples became limp and fragrant. I ate the apples right out of the pot while willing the tree across the street to turn red. 

I've always know that I am a seasons person, that I'd never be able to settle in Los Angeles or Austin, that I need the gentle rhythm of leaves growing and greening, changing and falling. I thought when I moved to Zürich that I would be swept up in similar New England style rhythms, but no, seasons here ping pong back and forth leaving you lost in July as to whether you need socks or sandals (never the two together please). Take the weather today for example; it is cold and grey, but it's only the fourth day of September. I am sitting here in my long sweater and red and white-stripped wool camping socks and the view out the window confirms that I'm not the only one who has dipped into their winter wardrobe. I love fall, but I'm not ready for it yet. It needs to happen slowly and subtly. The crisp air needs to sneak up on me breezily, until it wraps itself around me and I reach for a scarf. 

I'm pretty sure fall is tied up in my DNA: I was born at 10pm the night summer officially gives way to fall, I met Zach in the fall of 1999, we met again in the fall of 2002, we started dating a fall after that, we got engaged in the fall of 2009, Zach moved to Zurich in the fall of 2010 and I followed (legally) one fall later. Our lives are weighted towards the fall, things happen in the fall.

But what if fall feels different than I'm use to? Do things still happen?

Unsure of the answer I baked a plum crumble. The inspiration for this dessert and it's high crumb topping comes from the apple crisp at Deerfield, my high school in Western Massachusetts, where I witnessed three obnoxiously resplendent transitions from late summer into fall. I could write an entire blog about life at boarding school, but for the purposes of this post, just to set the scene, you should know that meals were a formal sit down affair, with assigned tables and teachers at each table. The dinning room with it's soaring ceilings, big bay windows and rows of circular tables was well suited to these please-pass-the-peas meals. And peas there were, peas and any other meat and gravy concoction that could possibly fit in a casserole dish. The heavy meals were capped off with equally heavy desserts to the tune of German chocolate cake, banana cream pie, heath bar brownies and my favorite, apple crisp. 
Until I went to Deerfield I only knew crisp of a weepy variety with soggy crumb that had surrendered its crispy buttery goodness to the sired call of the bubbling apple juices below. The crisp at Deerfield was another crisp all together. Really it should be called a crumble. It was lofty; the crumb sat high and poised on top of the syrupy apples in a ratio close to 1:1, each apple guaranteed a hunk of crumb. The crumb was a subtle play of textures, soft and warm on the inside and crunchy like an oatmeal cookie on the outside and around the edges. I use to watch the teacher serving the crisp and then watch the bowls going around to make sure that everyone, but especially me, was given their fair share of crumb topping.

When I asked Zach if he liked the apple crisp at Deerfield he said yes but admitted to liking the coconut cream pie better. That's right, we went to high school together. I wonder if we ever shared a pie plate or a crisp dish. It's all part of our story, but we weren't really friends in high school, just acquaintances by way of being in the same English class junior year. He had longer hair then, red and wavy and split in two with tendrils going off in different directions. The red on his head played well against his stripped tie-plaid shirt combinations, or was it plaid tie-stripped shirts? I can't remember, and honestly I'd rather not remember what I was wearing; it was probably in the pastel hue of things, likely obnoxious and definitely nothing I'd want to admit to wearing these days. It's c-r-a-z-y to think that there we were, Zach with his patterns and me with my pastels, eating crisp together with no idea what was coming next.

Anyway back to the crisp. But what about the apples, you ask. I love apples, I adore them, I buy them in 2kg sacks, I slice them up and eat them plain or stew them with cinnamon, but apple crumble, that is a dessert so tightly tied to fall in New England that I wasn't sure I could transplant it across the Atlantic, especially this early in the season. And besides, I want to make something that seeped Swiss fall, so I chose plums. The range of plum varieties at the market here is incredible: there are the purple football shaped Italian Prune plums, the mini marigold Mirabellen, the surprisingly sweet squash-ball sized green Reine Claudes, and the palm sized red, rose and violet plums with varying flesh colors. Sliced in half and stirred with a touch of sugar and cassis these plums make for an amazingly sweet and gooey foundation for the crumble. 
// Plum Crumble //
The crumble was adapted from Heidi Swanson's recipe. I used gluten free oat flour instead of the whole wheat flour to ensure a gluten free dessert for our friend Jess who came to dinner. I thought the flavor of the oat flour made the topping extra soft and cookie-like. 

You can make your own oat flour by grinding some rolled oats in a coffee grinder or food processor until finely ground. easy peasy.

1 kg / 2lbs  mixed plums - I used Mirabellen, Reine Claude and regular red plums
2-3 tbsp raw cane sugar
1 tbsp cassis
1 tsp corn starch

3/4 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup oat flour
1/3 cup raw cane sugar 
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt
1/3 cup butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup yogurt

Preheat the oven to 400ºF/200ºC

Slice the plums in half and remove the pits. Depending on the size of your fruit you might want to quarter the slices, up to you - it will all collapse into syrupy goodness in the end. In a large bowl gently toss the plums with the sugar, cassis and corn starch. Spoon into your baking dish. 

In a separate bowl mix the oats, oat flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Add in the butter and stir with a fork to incorporate it. Do the same with the yogurt, until you have a thick dough-like batter. Scoop the crumb on to the plums. 

Place the crumble in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the top is slightly browned and the juices are bubbling underneath. Serve warm with ice cream.