A WORLD OF BUBBLY

We interrupt our regular posting schedule to bring you a timely sparkling wine primer courtesy of our Blue Jean Sommelier, Anders.  If you’re still in need of a last-minute recommendation for New Year’s Eve, or simply want to know more about the types of wine you might encounter tonight, look no further.  Also, keep in mind–there’s no rule that says you must limit your consumption of bubbles to NYE!  Every day can be a holiday with one of these affordable bottles at the table.

If you’re new around here, be sure to check out Anders’ previous posts, too.

Wishing you all a safe, festive New Year’s Eve–check back tomorrow for a post about beginnings, endings, tradition, & shrimp creole.

Salud, L’Chaim, Cin-Cin, Prost, Sláinte, À votre santé, et. al!

Another New Year’s eve is upon us and again we find ourselves thinking about our favorite moments of the passing year and looking forward to the promise of the next.  In my opinion there are many beverages that go with fond nostalgia and anticipatory excitement, but none are perhaps quite as fitting as a delicious sparkling wine.  And – nothing really says PARTY quite as well as a chilled bottle of bubbly!


These days there are many choices from all over the world when it comes to selecting a festive vino frizzante, at a huge range of price points. Here is a rundown of many the options that are available to you and a little bit about what goes into each style.

CAVA
Cava is Spanish sparkling wine and although it can technically be made anywhere in the country at least 95% of it comes from Catalonia – vineyards that are not far from the city of Barcelona. Cava is made using the traditional method and can be crafted from the indigenous grapes Xarello, Parellada and macabeo as well as chardonnay and pinot noir.  Cava is an excellent source of value, you can read more about it here.

CHAMPAGNE
Still undoubtedly the king of sparkling wines but often quite spendy. One of the most important things to know is how Champagne is defined by French law. Sparkling wines from the Champagne region (90 miles NE of Paris) have to follow very specific rules to carry the name “Champagne” on their bottle (like using only Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or Chardonnay grapes, making the wines using the “traditional method” and aging the wine for at least 15 months). French lobbyists and lawmakers have long fought to make sure that the name Champagne is applied only to wines from the Champagne region.  The true quality of Champagne, however, is a result of intense care, precision and skill with which its grapes are grown.  It isn’t that this can’t be reproduced elsewhere, simply that the Champenoise have been at it for much, much longer than anyone else.

CREMANT DE…BOURGOGNE, LOIRE, ALSACE, ETC.
Cremants are sparkling wines from France that are governed by French wine law (meaning they also have aging, grape, vinification and other requirements), use traditional method and are often a GREAT source of value. I have always enjoyed Cremant de Alsace (Trimbach is a good producer) which typically used the Auxerrois grape as a base and can include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer among a few others.

PROSECCO
A sparkling wine made from the Prosecco grape. These wines are produced in the Treviso province of Northeastern Italy (north of Venice and northeast of Lake Garda).  Producers typically employ the Charmat method in making Prosecco, carrying out the second fermentation in large stainless steel tanks instead of in bottle.  As a result, Prosecco is typically less nuanced than traditional method sparkling wine but has bright fruit flavors and is typically best consumed in the year it is produced.

SEKT
Sekt is the name for “sparkling wine” in Germany and those found in the US are typically off-dry and crafted in large stainless tanks (Charmat method). The grapes for most Sekt are also not sourced from Germany itself but from Spain, Italy and France. Deutscher Sekt is the term for Sekt made from German grapes and is typically of higher quality. The grapes can very even more than the provenance, I have found examples made from blends of any of the following; Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Sekt is often a source of great value but may take a lot of experimentation to find a bottle you like given the amount of variance. Translate German sweetness levels this way: Herb = Extra Brut-Brut (bone dry-dry), Sehr Trocken = extra dry (very slightly sweet), Trocken = dry (slightly sweet), Halbtrocken = medium dry (sweet).

AMERICAN SPARKLING WINES
Since there are few laws governing the creation of American sparkling wine there is no standard on which method to use in creating it or which grapes to make it from.  There are, however, many extremely quality focused producers who put forth great bottlings year after year, using the traditional method and classic grapes. Argyle, Schramsberg, Roederer Estate, J Wine Co, Iron Horse and Domaine Carneros are all excellent producers

Feeling quite festive this holiday season, I took upon myself the grueling task of tasting a collection of what I thought promised to be great quality for price sparklers that are widely available in stores. Here are my notes…

NV (Non-Vintage) Montaudon Champagne Brut (France) $24-$38

The Montaudon probably had the best bubbles of the group – it fizzed finely for 30 minutes. I found the aromatics initially disappointingly-dominated by sulphur dioxide (used in bottling) and overpowering yeast aromas. But after about 5 minutes the sulphur blew off and the yeast aromas integrated with really enjoyable notes of apple blossom (I think – not having sniffed an apple blossom for quite some time), ripe peach, apricot and rose. The palate on the other hand was a well balanced with awesome acidity and citrus flavors that leaned toward lime.

My Rating: Fizzle that Sizzled (Like Robert Downey Jr.- troubled at first but came back strong)

NV Henkell Trocken (Germany) $13-$17
This Sekt is a combo of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot noir and Chenin blanc. The resulting blend is incredibly creamy and left the inside of my mouth feeling like I had just downed an English muffin with my usual disproportionate amount of butter. This wine is also relatively sweet (at least 3% residual sugar) and therefore sent my mother running for another glass of brut champagne. I have to say I rather enjoyed both the creaminess and the sugar, I think I may have discovered another personal guilty-pleasure wine. Expect little acidity (not a great pairing wine) and ripe fruit flavors of guava, apricot, cider and bitter almond on the finish.

My Rating: For Sugar and Butter Lovers

NV Zardetto Prosecco Brut (Italy) $10-$15
The first thing that I noticed about the Zardetto was its gargantuan bubbles! I mean the little orbs were almost the size of Dip & Dots and streamed towards the surface like skin divers gasping for breath. Since typically the finer the effervescence the better, I would not say this is exactly a good thing. On the other hand I found this Prosecco’s aromatics alluring and complex. I got bright honeydew, something floral I couldn’t pin down, lilac and honey. The palate was simple citrus that I thought leaned toward lime and left my mouth feeling chalky.

My Rating: I Wouldn’t Dump it Down the Drain (But You Could Do Better)

NV Gruet Rose Brut (USA – New Mexico) $13-$18
Oh my god it’s pink!! Once you get over any adverse preconceptions about rose wine (I used to have plenty) and give this wine a shot I think you will be pleasantly surprised by its rich, creamy fruit and generous effervescence. Flaunts its traditional method-birth with a lot of yeasty aromatics and flavors (croissant, croissant, croissant) blended together with effuse grapefruit and raspberry. I thought it was quite spectacular for money I laid down and it’s from New Mexico!

My Rating: Class for the Coin

NV J-Vineyards Cuvee 20 (USA – California – Russian River Valley) $22-$28
What struck me most about the J Cuvee 20 was its balance and the excitement of what I like to call “the ride” – that is it kept my focused attention from the just slightly sweet attack (when the wine hits the tip of your tongue) through the mid-palate where it spoke overtly of lemon and sweet bread, had a very subtle creaminess to its mouthfeel and showed a generous acidity that could cut through any rich appetizer. It then finished strong with a wonderful minerality that meshed symbiotically with its lemon-citrus notes.

My Rating: Top Notch

CHRISTMAS 2009

par·a·dox (noun) etymology: Latin paradoxum, from Greek paradoxon, from neuter of paradoxos contrary to expectation, from para– + dokein to think, seem

As a literary term: paradox, a statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense.

Life does not do us the courtesy of avoiding Christmas where sickness, death, & other unhappinesses are concerned.  I’d need more than one hand to count the friends who are dealing with some really shitty business as I type this.  Families are unkind to each other.  Parents die, slowly, painfully.  Even losses decades-old pinch and scrape like new.

And there are points of light: the sound of neighborhood kids testing out their new tricycles and bicycles with abandon, the smell of the Christmas tree, the stories your father-in-law tells, the feel of yeast dough between your fingers and the satisfaction of it rising in a buttered bowl, just as it’s supposed to.

Surrounded by people but feeling utterly alone.  Happy to be on vacation but befuddled by the free time.  Knowing the holidays aren’t really about “stuff” but coveting it nonetheless.  Accustomed to indulging every whim & desire, but relenting when the family’s movie choices do not match your own.  Feeling down in the holiday dumps, then feeling like an obnoxious spoiled brat because, you know, your life is REALLY GOOD.

We humans are complex beings, full of paradoxes which make themselves especially apparent as the year winds down to a close.  I find myself tangled up in thought—desire, confusion, nostalgia, regret.  I could easily paralyze myself with the attempt to figure it all out, but instead I think I shall paint my fingernails red, sneak some leftover ham out of the fridge, make myself a cup of really good hot chocolate.  Then sit in a chair and read a book.  Call my mama and tell her that I love her.  Think of my father and cry.

We’re not going to get it all figured out today, or probably ever. Let’s do our best to be good to each other (and ourselves) in the meantime.  Merry Christmas, ya’ll.

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APPLE TART

For today’s post (and I hope you won’t mind), instead of writing something new, I’ve reprinted an excerpt from an essay called “Playing the Goddess” that I published a few years ago.  At this time of year, my memory and nostalgia work overtime and I find myself longingly and gratefully thinking of my school’s Christmas pageant and the year I got to be Brown Mary. (St. Mary’s girls, if you’re out there, know that I’m thinking of you & sending much love this holiday.)

My parents sent me to St. Mary’s Episcopal School because it was the best girls’ education money could buy in Memphis, Tennessee. Unlike some immigrant parents, they were unconcerned by the school’s religious affiliation; my mother herself was educated by Roman Catholic nuns, and taught at a parochial school before she was married. And both my parents appreciated the incredibly diverse and tolerant religious landscape of India. Their friends, festivals, school holidays, symbols, and rituals ran the gamut from Hindu to Buddhist to Sikh to Christian; the lines of observance between these faiths were blurry. As my parents had discovered, so they passed on to me: Hinduism is a big umbrella; there’s a lot of room underneath.

So I was free to delve into the cool, quiet landscape of Anglican Christianity. Ever the eager student, I paid close attention in Mrs. Williams’ third-grade Bible class, sitting right in the front and peering up at her through my thick glasses. She would sit in the “teacher’s chair,” with us on the floor, and place her soft, framed felt board up against the chalkboard. Felt figures of Moses or Jesus appeared, with baskets of fish or the burning bush. Naturally, I had more questions than anyone else. Each story was new to me, and I was hooked. An avid reader, I discovered that the Bible was full of wild, fascinating stories that seemed more grownup than anything else I was allowed to read. The heartbreak and suffering of Jesus held me tight. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as a kindly, loving, sad man. And I began to notice that all the girls around me wore crosses around their necks, connected to him in a way that I wasn’t. While I sat behind, they walked up to the altar to receive communion. These were the limits of my belonging.

At the same time, I relished being different. Christianity was my exotic, but I was exotic to everyone else. My friends and classmates started asking me questions about what I believed, how my religion was different. I stopped taking for granted the Sanskrit prayers my family and I said and started asking about their meaning. My parents found books in English that re-told the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, Hinduism’s great epics, full of murder, intrigue, sex, and miracles to rival the most fantastic parts of the Old Testament. As my connection to my own religion grew, so did my fondness for high-church worship, the pomp and circumstance, traditional liturgy, and booming organ. The sensory onslaught of an Episcopalian church service is somewhat tamed-down in comparison to that of my birth religion, but both know how to put on a good show.

At times, I struggled with just how far to join in, whether it was alright to say “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” when I didn’t actually believe in him. No doubt, many of my fellow classmates were also skeptical or uncertain in their beliefs, but they had the luxury of habit and belonging. If their internal landscape didn’t match the external, no one was the wiser. But from the outset, I looked like a non-believer and I weighed my participation very carefully. As a Hindu, I was frustrated by the way my culture and religious traditions were often appropriated and mishandled by outsiders. It was important to me not to commit the same crime against Christianity.

Of course, I felt like an outsider in Hinduism too. Connected through my parents and centuries worth of traditions, my own personal stake in Hinduism was never as grounded as I thought it should be. Church was more interesting than temple; at least I could understand what everyone was saying and singing. The guilt I felt over my half-hearted engagement was tempered by a desire to protect and uphold my heritage, a duty which was important to me. Some first-generation kids push as far away from the “home country” as possible; I didn’t want to be one of them. Still, I knew that my main tie to Hinduism was nostalgic, not immediate. And as was the case with Christianity, my personal affiliation had everything to do with the group in which I wanted to belong. In both religions, I felt equally at home—that is to say, halfway like an intruder in both cases.

Over time, the splitting of theological hairs became less important to me, and the power of community, worship, and tradition took over. Whether I believed in the stories or not, they were good stories, powerful ones which had lasted for thousands of years. The cost of separating myself out from either group seemed too big a price to pay. So I bowed my head and heard myself repeating the same words as a church-full of people, the Apostles’ Creed, which I learned by heart. After I was asked to speak in chapel during Religious Diversity Week, I became known as the “Indian Oprah” for the way I had weaved my way through the pews with a cordless mike, answering students’ questions about my religion. At home, I enacted and absorbed what my parents placed before me—no eating meat on Tuesdays, wearing new clothes on Diwali—trusting that it was all somehow important for continuity’s sake. I felt to myself like a believer, if a loosely defined one. And there were always two creeds which I never had a problem saying, or meaning: the first from the Bhagavad Gita, modern Hinduism’s most sacred text, the second from St. Mary’s daily chapel service. In the first, Lord Krishna is instructing one of his faithful, Arjuna, about the proper way to live one’s life. Any man who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way, my friend. The second ended each chapel service at St. Mary’s, Monday through Friday, from my fifth grade to my twelfth grade year. Our chaplain said, Go in peace, to love and serve to Lord. And we responded, Thanks be to God.

St. Mary’s has many long-standing traditions (they’ve been educating young women since 1847), but my favorite has always been the Christmas pageant. This event has two sets of participants: little girls and big girls. The little girls are the second-and-third graders, who dress in red cassocks and white cottas and stand on risers to sing the evening’s program of Christmas hymns. The big girls are the seniors, who are grouped to form living tableaux, displayed while the little girls sing their songs. Each tableau is modeled after a painting of the Annunciation, Nativity, or Adoration done by one of the French or Italian masters. A shadowbox, about the size of a walk-in closet, was built long ago for this purpose, and is placed at the top of the red velvet stairs which lead up to the altar of the church. Christmas trees, left plain, are brought in to block the rest of the altar from view, so that big girls can hide behind, getting ready for their turn.

For seniors at St. Mary’s, the Christmas Pageant is second in importance only to graduation. To be part of the tableaux, seniors have to have been at St. Mary’s since at least the first grade. That makes eleven or more years during which the little girls have grown into big ones, watching the Pageant every year, sitting in the dark of the church, watching the beautiful seniors sit very still against the bright lights of the shadowbox. Each year, the senior class and high school faculty elect six girls to play the part of Mary. It is an honor which carries weight. The girls playing Mary should be worthy of their role, should have demonstrated love and compassion and sacrifice during their time at St. Mary’s. The school motto, “light and life,” should be exemplified in them. I feel lucky to be able to say my class took that vote very seriously, beyond a popularity contest. Even though we were big girls, there was still something about the idea of Mary, full of grace. She who gave birth to the Savior of Men. She who raised the Son of God.

With this in mind, we voted, and I became the first non-Caucasian, non Judeo-Christian Mary in school history.  “Brown Mary,” my friends and classmates called me, lovingly. It felt like a victory, one in which we all shared, injecting new life into an old tradition, scandalizing the church ladies a little bit. “Your skin color is probably more historically accurate than anyone else’s,” my high school history teacher said, and we arranged for my fellow Hindu, Amrita to be my Joseph. Behold the holy family, dark-skinned and authentic. Me, the mother, vehicle, and proud.

I got very sick the night before the pageant, amidst the swirl of exams and college applications which came with Christmas that year. It was bronchitis, and the doctor at the minor medical clinic warned me that it could get worse. “You need to rest, young lady,” he told me. “I know you won’t mind if I make you stay home from school tomorrow,” winking, thinking he was doing me a favor. “You don’t understand,” I protested. “I have to go.” We went back and forth like this for a while; I think he thought I was crazy. It isn’t easy to explain in five minutes what twelve years has built inside you. “Okay,” he relented. “I’ll give you a strong antibiotic and a painkiller. You’re going to have to try to break your fever—otherwise, you’re still contagious, so no go.”

I slept that night, exhausted and upset. The next morning, I hovered around 100 degrees, but was adamant that the fever would break. I had to be at school by noon—that much leeway my principal would give—the pageant started at two-thirty. My mother wrapped me in blankets, brought me warm liquids, lemon and honey for my aching throat. She chanted for me in Sanskrit from the prayer room down the hall and took my temperature every half-hour. “I know better than to argue,” she sighed. But we were both surprised at how hard I was trying. This ritual, this honor I had earned, this seeming contradiction, I wasn’t about to let go. Goddess, mother, Mary, someone. Please. Make me the vessel, give me your strength. I want to do this.

At eleven-fifteen my fever broke.

My mom walked me into the church where twenty-nine other girls were rehearsing their scenes and posing for photographs. The handful of girls standing in the shadowbox at the time caught collective sight of me and called out. “Nishta!” The room turned and I was flooded, overwhelmed with gladness, their gladness; that I was okay, that I was there. “You are supposed to be here,” they said. “You have to be our Brown Mary.”

Immediately, girls went to work on my transformation. It’s all a bit of a medicated blur—I felt woozy and weepy and wholly grateful. I sat on a hard pew in the bright and sunny side-chapel while they took care of me. Sarah, da Vinci’s Mary, dashed out in her silver Volvo to buy me chicken noodle, tomato, and cream of mushroom soups, because she wasn’t sure which one I would like. Kemper, da Vinci’s angel Gabriel, took charge of my makeup. “Now close your eyes, sweetie,” she said in her sweet, round, Southern voice. I felt the cool, black pencil against the edge of my warm eyelid, heard the second- and third-graders rehearsing in the background.

When it was time for my tableaux, I scrambled into place along with Amrita and our three friends, playing shepherds. We had a few moments in the dark before the next song began, and I remember being afraid that I was going to accidentally move; blink my eyes too much, scratch my nose, or, worst of all, pass out. I still didn’t feel very well, and I was afraid it might show. But then I felt Amrita’s hand on my shoulder from behind, where she stood as my Joseph. And that blue velvet curtain opened, and the lights came on, from either side of box, incredibly bright and incredibly hot. The whole thing felt a little bit ridiculous, sitting in a pine box, dressed up like an unwed Jewish mother from two thousand years ago.

I tried to quiet my mind and focus on the rows of hushed and darkened heads that watched me in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, the little girls, standing oh-so-politely on metal risers, their stocking feet tucked into pair after pair of black Mary Janes. I heard their baby gasps for breath as they tried to make it all the way through the “Gloo-ooo-oooo-oooria” and into “excelsis Deo.” In that moment, I realized that thin line between the ridiculous and the magical is governed by belief. An opera is only successful if its audience is willing to suspend its cynicism for a little while and dive in. Ritual works the same way.

After my turn, I joined my friends, huddled down in the darkness, hidden behind the strategically placed Christmas greenery. The cool, plush carpet was a relief; the girls had even sneaked a ginger ale onto the altar for me. Eyes sparkled all around as we, with muted voices, began to sing along with the little ones, who, in a handful of years, would take our place.

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
O the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir,
Sweet singing in the choir.


APPLE TART

for the crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

for the filling:

4 apples (I used McIntosh), peeled*, cored, & thinly sliced
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

for the glaze (optional):

½ cup apricot jam
juice of half a lemon

oven: 350˚
pan: 9- or 10-inch tart pan (preferably with a removable bottom) OR pie pan

Butter the pan thoroughly & set aside. To make the dough, cream the butter & sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer at high speed. Reduce speed to medium and add the egg. In a separate bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, & salt together—then gently add to the mixer bowl.

Press the dough (which will be soft) evenly into the tart pan, being sure to go all the way up the sides. Arrange the apples on top of the crust in any pattern that pleases you. Combine the cinnamon & sugar, then sprinkle generously over the apples.  Dot the apples with a few extra tablespoons of butter.

I find it’s easiest to place the tart pan on a baking sheet and to place the whole thing in the oven. Bake the tart for 45-55 minutes. Look for a lightly browned crust and set filling. Cool slightly on a wire rack.

A glaze is certainly not necessary but is easy to do and adds another level of flavor. To make the glaze, simply combine the jam & lemon juice in a small saucepan over low heat. Use a spoon or spatula to break up any clumps, bringing the glaze up to a boil. Remove from heat and brush or dribble over the tart.

Listen, this tart needs NOTHING (no. thing.) to be delicious, but it certainly won’t hurt the tart’s feelings (or mine) if you decide throw a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Myself? I like to top with homemade, lightly-sweetened whipped cream that’s also been spiked with Amaretto. Hey, it’s the holidays!

*As you can see, I did not choose to peel the apples this time around, just to see what would happen. No one complained–in fact, it was promptly devoured-but it’s more traditional to peel the apples, so do whatever feels best to you. Note that the peel will add texture.

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ALFAJORES

You know how, once you learn a new word or buy a new car, you’re suddenly seeing incarnations of them everywhere you turn?

Back in November, Gemma Petrie over at Pro Bono Baker posted a recipe for alfajores and I knew I had to make them.  She has been a long-time blog crush of mine, with her spare aesthetic and sophisticated taste, and I have yet to try a recipe of hers that didn’t become a favorite.

During a trip to Argentina, Gemma and her boyfriend Nick fell for these soft, dulce-de-leche filled cookies and, lucky for us, Nick set about creating his own recipe for them when they returned.

Of course, once I made a batch of alfajores, they began to appear in every corner.  At my nine-course-birthday-dessert-tasting.  At our first holiday party of the season.  In my dreams the night after the first batch had all been eaten.  These gentle cookies are perfect with tea or for an after-dinner alternative to a heavy dessert.  If you still have room in your holiday baking agenda, I urge you to give these a whirl, or at least bookmark them for the future.

Regarding the dulce de leche required for this recipe, I point you to another blog crush of mine, Ashley Rodriguez of Not Without Salt.  Her luscious photography is a match only for the creamy milk caramel that results from her almost stupidly simple method of making dulce de leche: simmer a can of sweetened condensed milk in a large pot for three hours.  No, seriously.  It’s like magic.  Tasty, tasty magic.

I’m copying the recipe exactly as it originally appeared, but there are subtle variations you can make with these cookies .  Size, for example—the first batch I made were much larger than the ones pictured here, as I cut the rounds using a water glass.  I also sprinkled sea salt on the caramel layer before sandwiching the cookie pieces together.  For the second batch (pictured here), I employed a small biscuit cutter and dipped the cookies in powdered sugar before sandwiching and omitted the sea salt.

This week I’ll make a third batch for my in-laws, who are headed into town to share Christmas with us.  Jill’s father always has a hankering for something sweet, and I think he’ll like the way that these pillowy cookies go with his coffee. Here’s hoping you all have houses full of loved ones, good eats, & joy this week.

NICK’S ALFAJORES
Recipe from Gemma Petrie of Pro Bono Baker, posted with permission

ingredients:
1 ¾ cup flour
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
8 T butter, room temperature
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 T milk
1 tsp. vanilla
15 oz. dulce de leche*

method:

Combine flour, salt, sugar and baking soda in a bowl.  Mix in the butter and then work in the egg yolks, milk and vanilla. Shape the dough into two separate balls, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for about two hours.

Preheat oven to 325˚.  Roll out each ball of dough on a slightly floured surface to 1/4 inch thick. Cut using a two-inch cookie cutter and transfer cookies to baking sheets covered with silpat mats. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tops of the cookies appear dry, but not so long that the cookies brown.

Allow the cookies to cool on a wire rack.  When cool, spread half the cookies with dulce de leche and top with the other half.  Serve with a café con leche for an irresistible treat.  A traditional way to serve the cookies is to roll the sides in shredded coconut.  We’re not big coconut fans, so we left ours plain.

*We used dulce de leche that we brought back from Argentina.  Feel free to use store bought or make your own.  There are plenty of traditional recipes out there, but I was extremely intrigued to find this recipe from the lovely blog Not Without Salt that calls for simply cooking a can of condensed milk in boiling water.  Brilliant.

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GRILLED HALLOUMI

What do great cooks, teachers, & writers all have in common?  They’re thieves.


Intellectual borrowers, if you will.  We can’t help it, right?  If your senses are trained within a particular context—to notice flavors, say, or word choice—you are bound to absorb, like a sponge, the methods and ideas all around you.

This is a good thing.  It cracks your life wide open to a world of possible muses; you never know where or when or by whom you’ll be inspired.  As with, for instance, today’s dish.

In graduate school, I didn’t do a lot of eating out.  I was watching my pennies, as most graduate students are, and given that I had lots of time at home for writing, I found myself in the kitchen a great deal, stirring away at a pot of something while simultaneously working out an essay in my head.  However, often it was essential to leave one’s apartment or house for the communal sanctuary of a coffee house or a café with cheap enough fare and an inclination NOT to kick lingering students out.

At one such café on Fourth Avenue, the main drag of Tucson’s university area, I discovered an intriguing sandwich made with grilled halloumi cheese.  For one thing, I had never heard of halloumi before and I sure did like the way it sounded:

Hallooooooumi!
Hallooooooumi!

It’s like a friendly greeting, only it’s actually a type of cheese, made from sheep’s milk in places like Greece & Cyprus (they got a lot of sheep there, far as I can tell).

But here’s the kicker: YOU CAN GRILL IT.  YOU CAN GRILL THE CHEESE.

See?  Yeah, it’s pretty tasty stuff—develops a lovely crust on the outside which gives way to chewy, tangy goodness on the inside.  You can understand how this inspired me, right?

This is what I came up with: naan or pita bread smeared with sweet mango chutney (yes, the jarred kind—let’s keep this simple, folks!), topped with a warm piece of grilled halloumi, garnished with slow-cooked red onions and fresh cilantro.

Sounds fancy, don’t it?  I’ve been serving my newbestfriendforever halloumi at the last few Diwali parties we’ve thrown and it has proven to be a real crowd pleaser, people rushing to their spouses, “You’ve gotta try this!”  It’s festive, unusual, and no one will guess that it wasn’t actually that hard to make.

GRILLED HALLOUMI

Halloumi’s becoming more and more popular, however it still isn’t carried by most “mainstream” grocers.  Check Whole Foods or another specialty store, the safest bet being a Middle Eastern purveyor.

The flavors of this appetizer will also work for a light dinner or lunch—just sandwich bigger pieces of cheese inside a pita or wrap them up with fresh naan.  Be sure to throw in the onions, cilantro, & chutney, too!

ingredients:

naan or pita bread
1 package halloumi, drained & patted dry
1 red onion
1 jar sweet mango chutney
cilantro
olive oil
butter

do ahead:

Caramelize the onions.  First, peel the onion & slice it thinly.  In a very heavy pot fitted with a lid, heat 1 T butter & 2 T olive oil over medium heat.  Sauté the onions gently until they become translucent, then turn the heat down to low.

Cook for about forty minutes with the lid on, stirring regularly until the onions are brown, almost disintegrated, like an onion marmalade.

assemble:

If you’d like to go the super-fancy route, make rounds from your bread using a biscuit or cookie cutter.  If there’s no need to be super-fancy, just cut the bread into about 2-inch wedges.  Slather a generous amount of chutney on each piece of bread.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high, coat with olive oil.  If you don’t have a grill pan, don’t worry, the halloumi will taste just as good, but it won’t have fancy grill-marks, and those are kind of fun.

Slice the halloumi a half-inch thick.  When your pan is quite hot (but not smoking!), grill the cheese in batches, cooking until golden brown on both sides, between 8-10 minutes total.

The halloumi is best when it’s at least warm, if not hot, so cut the pieces carefully to fit on your bread.  If you’re doing this process in anticipation of a slew of guests, you can keep the grilled halloumi warm in a low oven.  Don’t leave it too long, though!  It tastes much better freshly cooked.

Place a piece of halloumi on top of each bread round or wedge.  Top with a teaspoon-sized heap of caramelized onion, then garnish with fresh cilantro.

ALMOND COCONUT BARS

[Inspired by this blog, which you ought to check out.  Rachael’s writing is addictive & she’s rather swell in person, too.]

This post is a little behind.

Normally, I post on Fridays.
But that was not to be this week.  The confluence of
end-of-the-semester business,
start-of-holiday-season events,
and the regular to-do list
did me in.

Of course, I recognize
that the problem
of not posting your blog
on the day to which you (and your readers)
are accustomed
is a first-world problem.

I think all of my problems
(if you can really call them that) fall
into that category.  I am committed
to being cognizant of that
as close to
all-of-the-time
as possible.

It’s easy to lose perspective in this mad-cap world.

My parents’ anniversary was also this week.  Or would have been.  Or something.
Verb tenses get so messed up
when someone dies.

December 8, 1967.
That was a long time ago.
My mom was twenty.
My dad was twenty-five.

They were little.  Younger than I am now
and so good-looking.

Weren’t they just?  If they don’t look
very excited to you,
there’s a good reason for that.

It was only the third time
they had ever met.
I know, right?
Arranged marriage & whatnot.

There’s actually a very fascinating
longer version
of the story
in which my mom
rejected some other dude

(and thank goodness she did, or
somebody we know
would not be sitting here right now)

but I am saving the longer version
of the story
for my book.
So you’ll just have to wait for it.

There are a lot of things
I miss about my dad.

The scariest thing about losing someone
when you least expected it
is that you live in fear
of forgetting
what they looked like
and smelled like
and the sound of their voice
saying your name.

Luckily I have that.
In a forty-second clip
from our trip to India
which we took
a month before he died.

Sometimes I just listen to it
over and over again
and cry.

And then I usually cook something—
(that’s my solution to every problem, really)
something he would like
something he would want to eat
something he would be proud of me making.

These almond-coconut bars were his favorite.
He had a knack
for waking up from his nap
(he used to take the most epic naps)
just as these suckers
were ready to come out of the oven.

He liked to eat things
PIPING
hot.  I don’t know how he did it.

I wish he were here
to sneak some now
and say, “Don’t tell your mother”
while winking conspiratorially.

I keep waiting
for him to show up
even though I know
he won’t.

ALMOND COCONUT BARS

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs*
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 T sugar

1 egg
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup shredded coconut (recipe calls for sweet, if substituting unsweetened, bump up the sugar)
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup flour
1 T. cream or milk
1 tsp. vanilla

pan: 9 inch square
oven: 400˚

Combine the first three ingredients to make the crust—press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 5 minutes.

While the crust is browning, beat the egg until foamy, then beat in the brown sugar.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the hot graham cracker layer.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch.  One caveat: check the bars at the 15 minute mark.  Because ovens vary so much, the tops of your bars may brown before baking time is up.  If that’s the case, simply cover the pan with foil for the remainder of baking.

* Yes, you can buy them pre-made but they vaguely resemble sawdust.  If you have a food processor, it couldn’t be easier to make your own crumbs.  Second easiest: sealable plastic bag, rolling pin, energetic child.

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SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS

It’s always a good idea to revisit a classic.


My students and I are finishing up our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird this week and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief.  I was so hesitant to teach this text—some of you know that I switched from sixth to eighth grade English for this year—because I just didn’t know if I could do it justice.  Never have I been asked to teach a book I hold so close to my heart, and I was scared.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in the seventh grade.  My teacher, Mrs. Zehring, was a goddess whom we all worshipped; we were captivated by her, and so then by extension, the book.  I’ll never forget the afternoons sitting in that classroom, listening to her read passages from the book aloud in her lilting Southern accent.  The intensity of the storylines surrounding Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, the innocence and feistiness of Scout, the quiet and courageous dignity of Atticus—all of it made a profound impact on me.

Since then, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird many times, marveling in the adept writing, haunted by the timelessness of the social commentary, being ever moved to tears at the end.  What if I couldn’t convey all of this to my students?  What if they didn’t “get it?”  What if I became unfairly frustrated with them because I was so attached to the book?


I needn’t have been so worried.  Coming to the book as a teacher has only deepened my respect for and awe over its power, especially as I’ve watched my students go from skeptical (“It’s so confusing!”) to interested (“Okay, it got kinda good.”) to deeply impacted (“OMG, I cried!”).  And, of course, they have shown me facets of the book that feel new, energizing.  They have renewed my faith that classic literature really is classic—that it can still be read and cherished in a Lady Gaga, podcast kind of world.

For a dinner classic, I urge you to revisit spaghetti & meatballs.  If nothing else, the basic marinara sauce is worth getting under your belt.  The meatballs, while time consuming, are crazy-delicious.  Lighter and more flavorful than the ones you might have grown up eating, these still satisfy that “bowl o comfort” craving at the end of the day.


SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS

My philosophy is that if I’m going to go through the trouble to make homemade marinara sauce and meatballs, I’d might as well make a bunch of both.  The sauce freezes so well, and on a night when you really need it, will help you answer the inevitable “What are we having for dinner?” Think: pasta, pizza, chili.

You can also freeze the meatballs, of course, either on their own or in the sauce.  But don’t feel limited to serving the two together—the meatballs will work just as well on a sandwich or you can toss them into all kinds of soups.

This recipe is very forgiving, so feel free to improvise as you see fit.

for the marinara
:

2 large yellow onions, diced
6-8 cloves garlic, minced (may sound like a lot, but I promise it mellows)
½ cup red or dry white wine
3 (28 oz. each) cans whole tomatoes
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 T dried oregano
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
olive oil
salt & pepper

optional: fresh basil, to finish

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3-4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook 1-2 minutes before adding the garlic.  Cook together until translucent and soft, 8-10 minutes more.

Crank up the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine.  Reduce that mixture down until it’s thick and syrupy.  Now it’s time to toss everything else in: the tomatoes, tomato paste, balsamic, oregano, & crushed red pepper.

Allow the sauce to heat up until it’s bubbling, then turn down heat and simmer the marinara for at least 45 minutes, preferably an hour or two.   Serve as-is OR add meatballs to heat through (see below) OR cool and freeze the sauce for later use.


for the meatballs:

2 lbs. ground meat*
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup day-old bread, preferably white or an Italian-style loaf
approx. 1 cup milk, preferably 2% or whole
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup parsley, roughly chopped
1 tsp. lemon zest
salt & pepper
olive oil
vegetable oil

Sauté the onion & garlic in a small skillet with olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent (sensing a theme here?).  Set aside to cool.

Tear or chop the bread into small pieces, then pour milk over the bread, enough to cover all of the pieces.  Let sit for five minutes, then remove the bread, squeezing out any excess milk.   Trust me on this, okay?

Add the milk-soaked bread to a large bowl, along with the cooled onion & garlic, parsley, lemon zest, and generous amounts of salt & pepper.  Using your hands (really, you must, and it’s so much fun anyway!), mix everything thoroughly.

Again, using your hands, shape the meat mixture into meatballs of the size you prefer—I like mine with a 1 to 1 ½ inch diameter—and line them up on baking sheets.

I use a deep, very heavy-bottomed saucepan for meatball-cooking purposes, and an oil ratio of 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vegetable oil.  The oil needs to get rather hot (not quite to smoking) and I recommend you wear long sleeves when you do this—safety first!

Cook the meatballs in small batches—don’t crowd!  Brown the meatballs on all sides (remember, you’re not cooking them through) and then return them to a clean baking sheet.  Depending on the size of your pan, each batch will take 8-12 minutes.

To finish the meatballs, you have a couple of options: toss them in the hot marinara sauce and let them simmer for about twenty minutes, or do the same with hot soup broth.  Otherwise, the meatballs can finish cooking in a 350˚ degree oven, 12-15 minutes if smaller, 15-20 if bigger.

Cool the meatballs thoroughly before freezing OR cook up some pasta and bust out the Parmesan.

*I have used all combinations of meats with great success: all ground beef, half beef/half pork, half beef/half ground turkey, all turkey.

FEELIN’ KINDA SNOW DAY: PECAN TASSIES

It snowed.  Squee!


Blame my students, who came to school restless as all get-out, with visions of snowmen dancing in their heads.   Poor kids, you’ve got to understand—those of you who live in a northerly direction and are laughing at my picture, saying “You call that snow?”—we don’t see much winter around these parts.  So, I really can’t blame them for being so hysterical today, even though I was a total meanie and made them discuss To Kill a Mockingbird anyway.  Snow or no snow, we’re still having a test next week, punks!

[I call them “punks.”  They feign offense.  It’s funny.]

Of course, once we dismissed school early and released the squirrely kiddos to their parents, I got kinda excited about the snow myself.  Quick trip to the grocery store, rescue of the last of the garden lettuce, generous scatter of birdseed, haul of wood pile hearth-side, & sweater on the very cute dog.

Now Rebecca is here now for a snow slumber-party; yes that Rebecca, my freshman college roommate whose late mother was the motivation behind my recent haircut.   There are few more valuable things in the world, I think, than the presence of a friend who knows pretty much everything about you and loves you for all of it, not in spite of it.

Rebecca has been my confidant and cheerleader through bad relationship choices, the inception of my writing career, the days I first fell in love with Jill, and other milestones I’m less than proud of.  We have shared Pop Tarts in early-morning freshman Psychology class, an unfortunate amount of cheap vodka (with cinnamon Altoid chasers) one night in San Antonio, the burden of grief, and ridiculous amounts of candy.  I can be more all-out goofy with her than I can with almost anyone else; I have never known her to judge.  She is hella-talented, fiercely loyal, and deeply invested in compassion.

Oh and the girl can eat.  I’m talking put-away-serious-quantities-of-food-eat.  I love that quality in a woman.

This is all very nice, Nishta, you say, and I’m happy to hear you’re having such a lovely evening, but where is mah RECIPE, Blue Jean Gourmet?

Don’t fret.  It’s here, I promise.  Well, not here, exactly, but close by.  The nice folks at The Superior Nut Store asked me to share a favorite nutty recipe to feature on their blog. The Pecan Tassies I chose originally hail from my family’s annual holiday cookie plate, and proved their magic once again as they disappeared within minutes when I took a batch to work.

Need other ideas for your holiday baking?  I’ll be posting more goodies in the next two weeks, but don’t forget about: lemon squares, caramel corn, Chex mix, or these molasses cookies.

Last but not least, we have a little news!  Eating Our Words, the food blog of the Houston Press, gave last week’s Mexican Rice & “Grad School” Black Beans post a very kind shout-out.  Thanks so much to them, and to you, for your readership.

Stay warm, punks!

TAKING STOCK & MAKING SOUP

Around here we say, “unfussy food from a fun-loving kitchen.”*  Essentially, what that means to me is you can make great food at home without slaving away for hours or blowing your budget on fancy ingredients.  The kitchen is a place where we should all feel free to make mistakes and make a mess, to play and focus, to relax and to express.  If it isn’t fun, or at the very least rewarding, we won’t do it.

To me, there’s no inherent virtue in fussy.  You know, three different curlique garnishes, half-a-dozen specialty ingredients, recipes that could fill a dishwasher with bowls and dishes just from the prep work?  I don’t do fussy for fussy’s sake.  But if the fuss is going to get me something, like crave-able onion rings,  light, buttery popovers, or delicate almond cookies sandwiched with jam and chocolate, then I’m totally in.

I first tried making my own stocks and broths in graduate school because I was on a serious budget, and it was the frugal thing to do.  Of course, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that once I started making my own versions, I wouldn’t be able to buy the pre-packaged stuff anymore.  Hours of slow-simmered goodness from your own stove, it’ll spoil you.

It’ll also make you feel worthy of your grandmother or [insert personal kitchen icon here].  Making homemade stock, which you can then use in homemade soups and stews, is the ultimate I CAN DO THIS moment.  Make your own stock and see if you don’t feel like a bona fide, authentic, oh-so-capable blue jean gourmet!

Oh, and have I mentioned how easy it is?  All you really need is an extended period of time at home so you can let the stock simmer and check on it from time to time.  Four to six hours later, you’ll have a house that smells like heaven (warning: this can drive dogs craaaaaazy) and stock that’s richer and more flavorful than anything you can buy in a box or a can.

Of course, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk to go along with it, and if you decide to make stock, you’re going to want to cook with at least some of it ASAP (freezing the rest for future use, of course).  So I’m including an easy, hearty dinner soup recipe that will serve your new stock well.

Should you wish to go all the way with the “fussy but it’s worth it” theme, might I suggest you tackle the infamous Boeuf Bourguignon?  Made famous by the fabulous Julia Child and then re-famous by Julie & Julia fever this year, it really is something you ought to make at least ONCE in your culinary lifetime.  I made some this summer for Jill when I discovered she’d never had it.  She’s still raving about it, I tell you.

More interested in chicken, chicken stock, & chicken soup?  Don’t worry, we gotcha covered.

*Coming soon to a kitchen apron near you!  Yes, really.  Stay tuned.

BEEF STOCK

To make your own beef stock, you can simply buy soup bones from a butcher or save the bones from roasts & steaks as you cook.  If you are working with bones that have already been cooked, you can use a stovetop method: simply sauté all of the same vegetables listed below in a stock pot with some olive oil until soft & fragrant.  Then add the water, bones, & seasonings.

4 lb. beef soup bones (uncooked)
2 red onions, quartered
3 carrots, chunked
3 ribs celery, chunked
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled & smashed
2 T tomato paste
1-2 bay leaves
fresh thyme or rosemary
salt & pepper

optional: splash of red wine
oven: 450˚

Place the vegetables on the bottom of a large roasting pan.  Drizzle with olive oil, then place the soup bones on top.  Season everything liberally with salt & pepper.

Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, then transfer the contents of the roasting pan (plus any delicious, accumulated juices) to a large stock pot.  Fill the pot with as much water is needed to cover everything, somewhere around 8 cups.

Toss in the herbs, tomato paste, & red wine (if using).  Bring the mixture up to a boil, skimming off any foam that initially rises to the top.  then let the stock simmer gently for at least four hours, allowing it to reduce.

Taste-test the stock before deciding it’s through.  When you’re ready, strain the stock & save the meat from the soup bones for your dog or another purpose.

If you wish to skim the fat from your stock, the easiest way to do so is to refrigerate the finished stock in a large plastic container.  When it’s nice and cool, the fat solids will rise to the top, making them easier to removed.

Me personally?  I like fat.  It tastes delicious.

Once thoroughly cooled, beef stock will keep well in the freezer for several months.

ITALIAN SAUSAGE SOUP

Inspiration for this soup comes from Jill’s mother—my version is a bit different, but like hers, it’s hearty, easy to make, & goes wonderfully with a pan of cornbread or sliced loaf of crusty bread.  Like most soups, this one just gets better after a few days in the refrigerator!

The more flavorful the sausage, the more flavorful the soup.  Splurge, if you can, on well-crafted product, preferably fresh sausage from a grocery counter (as opposed to something frozen or packaged wholesale).  A tip—if you are a fan of parmesan cheese, save the rind!  I always add them to my soups, especially this one, and they impart excellent flavor.

6 cups beef stock
1 lb. Italian Sausage (hot or mild—the choice is yours!)
1 onion, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bunches fresh or 1 package frozen spinach
2 cans chickpeas, drained
fresh (1 T each) or dried (1 tsp. each) basil & oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper (1 tsp. each)

Slice or crumble the sausage into a tall, heavy-bottomed pot.  Turn heat to medium and brown the sausage, in two batches if necessary.  Transfer the browned sausage to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Without cleaning the pot, add a bit of olive oil and cook the onions and garlic until translucent.  If you’re using frozen spinach, you’ll need to thaw & drain it while the onions cook.  If you’re using fresh, wash & dry it well before adding it to the onions & garlic, allowing the leaves to cook down quite a bit.

At this point, return the sausage to the pot along with the rest of the ingredients: stock, chickpeas, herbs, salt, pepper, & frozen spinach (if using).  Bring the soup to a boil, then simmer on low heat for at least thirty minutes before checking for flavor and adjusting salt, if necessary.

Serve hot.  Feel free to grate some parmesan on top—but only if you want to.

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