Toast From Eden

I had a rather archaic breakfast this morning.

I wandered into work at the coffee shop bleary-eyed and stumbling, forcing my sleepy brain awake with minuscule sips of espresso.

I unlocked our stainless steel fridge, sleek and modern in the cool grey morning and found, to my surprise, a bag full of bulbous green figs.

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They were strangely out of place in my ultra-modern, sleek-is-everything curated coffee bar. I was drawn to them immediately, our old souls connecting. Figs have always amazed me with their sweet, succulent simplicity.

And if these little fruits have been around since the Garden of Eden, just imagine how wonderfully steadfast they’ve been through the ages. Didn’t Adam and Eve sew their first garments out of fig leaves? (I checked. They did.)

Yet here they were, sitting primly on the white marble counter as though they belonged there so perfectly. So very far from Eden.

I sliced one open with the back of a spoon, the tender flesh yielding without any struggle. How could I not eat one for breakfast with a little ceramic demi cup of warm milk and honey? It was the smallest homage to a breakfast of hope and promise and gratitude. It was staggeringly Biblical and also quite reassuring.

I ate my archaic snack and finished my shift. I took a tiny tupperware of figs home with me and made the perfect late-summer snack: caramelized onion and fig toast.

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(They did, in fact, come from the fig tree of one of my coworkers who was kind enough to share her bounty.)

Here’s my recipe!


 

You’ll need: 

a loaf of bread for toasting

a yellow onion, sliced thinly

bleu cheese

figs, also sliced thinly

honey

butter, preferably as whole and fatty as possible (I like Kerrygold)

optional: pork lardons, or very thick bacon

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How-To:

  1. Using a toaster or skillet, toast your bread. Spread with a thin layer of butter.
  2. In a saucepan, melt a knob of butter. Add onions and let cook until caramelized and tender.
  3. In another small saucepan, add about 3T honey and 1/4c water. Once combined, bring to a simmer. Add sliced figs and let simmer until figs are tender and glazed. (It’s ok if they fall apart.)

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4. To assemble the toast, spread first a layer of caramelized onions. Top with figs, cooked bacon lardons. Sprinkle with bleu cheese.

5. Enjoy!


 

Deuteronomy 8:7-9

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey, a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 

Twelve Grapes

“Are you trying to connect me to my culture?”

There I stood in the grocery store, clutching an enormous bunch of grapes. I was mid-argument, insisting that we needed them for New Years. It was tradition, I insisted, although I had never practiced it before and didn’t know exactly whose tradition it was.

I had seen mention of eating twelve grapes for New Years — one for each upcoming month — in an old, unopened cookbook titled simply, Phillipine Cooking. Clearly written by secondhand English speakers, it has become my favorite cookbook. It is brimming with ridiculous, unintentional humor and recipes specifying measurements in kilos.

As I stood in the aisle with a handful of large, seeded grapes, I could see perhaps why my native Filipino boyfriend thought I may be attempting to pigeonhole him into a stereotype.

But I was also very excited to have learned this wonderful new food tradition, just in time for the holiday.

We ended up buying the grapes. I was excited. I was about to enter (totally amateurishly) into a foreign food tradition. Food history is my jam.

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Of course, if you only eat twelve grapes at midnight, there’s still a hearty bunch left on the vine come the morning of January 1st.

And I don’t really even eat grapes.

So they sat there. It’s been a week and I’ve noticed a slight shrivel in their swollen purple bellies. It is as if their New Year’s resolution was to lose weight and aim for raisinhood.

So I did what any thrifty culinarian would do. I boiled them down with a little sugar, a dash of cinnamon, a hint of lemon zest … and folded them into hand pies.

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Not the healthiest resolution, I’m sure, but tasty nonetheless. And none of those grapes went to waste!

Also, if you’re curious: the original tradition, it would seem, has Spanish roots. This would make sense — the Philippines were conquered by the Spanish and left a flurry of mixed cultures and traditions behind. The goal is to eat all twelve grapes in the twelve seconds preceding the New Year, and must be calculated to finish with the ringing chimes or church bells welcoming in the year.

To not do so, some believe, is bad luck.

(But I believe that putting your spare grapes to use will even all that bad luck out in just a few bites.)

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Love & Saucepans

Have you ever had a kitchen epiphany? They’re realizations had over the cooktop, thoughts that materialize as bubbles break the surface of a simmer or deep thoughts that appear while whisking.

Yesterday I had the craziest kitchen epiphany.

It was a moment I should have been frustrated. It was a gloomy, quintessential ‘bad day’ where plans were cancelled and holiday Wal-Mart lines were agonizingly long. I was grumbling about something, my face etched into a frown. Isaac was with me. We were riding in the car, rain hitting the windows, music the only sound in the vehicle.

We were bummed. Moving to a new city is hard. A misty drizzle of disappointment had moved into the car with the dampness of early winter.

Finally we reached my apartment. No parking to be found, we circled the block three times in silence. (Parking a Hummer in Portland, by the way, is about as easy as fitting a traincar into a shoebox.)

At long last I stood in my kitchen, a space so small if I stand with my hands on my hips both elbows touch the walls. Rain smattered the windows. I currently own one portable cast-iron cooktop, one saute pan, and one saucepan. The cupboards have dried pasta, minute rice, peanut butter and coffee beans.

It was, indeed, a bleak situation.

I could sense my frustration building. It was aided by hunger, so I did the only thing I could and turned on the cooktop.

It took me 40 minutes to make dinner. 40 minutes of silence, 40 minutes that I cooked and Isaac sat; both lost to the thoughts in our own heads.

And that’s when it hit me. I was heating water, watching bubbles crop up along the bottom of the saucepan. My frustration lifted off of me, replaced by the rhythm of the kitchen. The small space suddenly didn’t feel so small, it felt like a station in a restaurant. My kitchen experience took over and left my thoughts to trail in and out of the garlic slicing, the pasta cooking, the roux thickening.

If anyone knows me personally, it is evident I am comfortable in silence. I am a listener, not a speaker. Unless I have ample time to write out my thoughts and practice speaking them aloud, words do not naturally flow out of my mouth. I pride myself on being an observer because I am comfortable along the wall, watching, taking in a scene and later writing everything down. I speak through written words. I struggle to speak out loud.

At moments when it is most crucial for me to speak, I often find my tongue strangled against my throat. My hands itch to be busy.

But when I cook! That’s where it changes.

My thoughts began to flow freely. I strained the pasta. I felt, in that moment, as Bee Wilson describes in her book, Consider the Fork, [kitchens] filled with ghosts. You may not see them, but you could not cook as you do without their ingenuity.”

I knew, as I stirred cheese sauce over that tiny stovetop, that I felt as every loving mother, sister, wife, sweetheart ever had while cooking. It is an extension of yourself. Chefs, those that are serious and dedicated and driven by that vein of crazy, passionate madness, know the feeling. To give someone a dish is to give them an extension of yourself; your heart on a plate.

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I knew how my own mother felt, making us dinner every night from scratch, tirelessly spoiling us with dishes made with love. When she was exhausted, the meals were simple. But they were always from scratch. Days of ordering pizza were rare and reserved for when Mom was out of town and Dad had to cook. (Even then, he usually recruited me.)

I had never fully been in tune with what it meant to have a plate in front of me made by someone’s hands, made, as Hallmark cards say, with love. It was an idea that had flirted with my thoughts briefly in the early weeks of culinary school when our chefs were demonstrating proper classical French techniques. I knew that the meals they were putting before me were technically correct, the kind of old-school cooking that hardly existed anymore. I tried to savor every bite because I knew it was made with intention.

But to face a simple meal, a regular dinner, and realize it was also made with love and intention is a concept I hadn’t fully given dedication to.

I was tired. I was frustrated. But I was putting everything I had into homemade mac’n’cheese, stirring all my best intentions in with pasta I had kept close watch on. Maybe I couldn’t express those things out loud. But they find their way into the hearts of the person they’re intended for in the end, one forkful at a time.

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Maybe because my kitchen is so small all of my warm, buzzing thoughts were bouncing off the wall, magnifying themselves and warming the space. Still, I was gripped by contentment, my frustration was edged out by peace.

Kitchens are warm and welcoming places. They are the best room of any house. To cook is to speak, to give someone a meal is to express yourself to them. It is not only an offering of sustenance but an offering of time, intention, care and dedication.

It took me 40 minutes. I did everything from scratch. We had EasyMac easily available in a little blue box above the microwave, but nothing would ever be as satisfying as homemade mac’n’cheese– not because it tasted better but because it was made. It was crafted, no matter how simply.

For those that cook there is an invisible thread that connects us all, a warmth that emanates from all of our stoves. I always found peace knowing that while I was mis en placing my station in a restaurant, countless other tired, driven, passionate cooks were doing the same.

It was is if we all did it together as an invisible task force with the sole intention of extending our hearts, whether we knew it consciously or not.

It was a sappy, holiday-esque moment of realization. To cook is to share; to cook is to connect. I spend my free time trying to absorb as much food culture as I can. I feel an inexplicable draw towards the universal warmth of the dinner table.

We ate our mac’n’cheese. The drizzly fog lifted from our hungry temperaments. The night turned around, we both left feeling lighthearted after a dreary day.

Maybe this is a well-timed realization with the holidays around the corner. I’ll be baking alongside my mother for Thanksgiving in just a few days, a blessing I don’t want to take for granted.

Those that eat meals made with love may never realize its there. They may never see plates as extensions of hearts.

That’s okay. It’s a quiet connection and a reassuring realization for the one that made the meal.

Think back to the days where your mother urged you to finish your meal. It’s good for you, it gives you energy, it fills you up, it keeps you going. But it was made with love, really and truly. You aren’t just eating green beans.

This is the perfect season and the perfect time to offer up a little thankfulness. When that turkey faces you on the dinner table, loaded (hopefully) with stuffing, glistening with holiday goodness, take two tiny seconds to thank the one who made the meal.

And then do what you’ve been dying to — load up your plate with all the love and goodness and dig in.

In Celebration of Cinnamon

Long ago, it drove exploration to the new world. It was fought for, bought and traded at exorbitant prices and was seen as a rarity only the most wealthy could afford.

Now, we sprinkle it everywhere, as common as salt.

Let’s talk cinnamon.

This time of year, cinnamon is on the forefront of our grocery selections and so readily available it’s almost easy to get bored of. In day and age where products can be shipped worldwide in a matter of mere days, cinnamon doesn’t seem so much like a luxury.

But back in the 15th century, explorers were embarking upon treacherous voyage to get their hand on cinnamon. (Which, essentially, is bark. People sailed ’round the world for bark.)

In fact, during the spice trade Arab sellers would tell extravagant tall tales to their buyers to explain and maintain their exorbitantly high prices. For example, a one such tale (as told by 5th century Greek historian Herodotus) featured giant birds who carried cinnamon sticks to their nests, high upon mountains that no human could climb. In order to obtain the cinnamon, villagers would put ox meat below the nests. When the birds brought the meat to their nests, the weight would cause the nest to fall, allowing the cinnamon to be collected at the bottom upon its crash landing.

Personally, I find the most romantic tall tale to be that told by Pliny the Elder, who claimed cinnamon came from far-flung Ethiopia on oarless rafts with no sails powered “by man alone and his courage.”

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine cinnamon being so rare and valuable. No one needs to sail to the farthest ends of the earth to find it — we can pick it up in jars any time we want.

However, the bulk mass we find is usually Cassia, which is a similar spice with a headier, spicier, stronger scent and flavor, found mainly in Indonesia. The good stuff, which is mellow, sweet and worth globetrotting for is Ceylon, originally discovered in Sri Lanka in the early 15th century (which saved Sri Lanka’s local economy and made them all rich.)

And, of course, we use it for pies and lattes and breads and French toast. Using cinnamon for anointing oil, embalming fluid and covering the taste of rancid meat is far less common these days.

Next time you take a bite of a cinnamon roll or sip a seasonal coffee drink, take a second to appreciate what it took to reach your lips. It was fought for, over terrifying briny seas and storms and given only to the most wealthy. We are incredibly lucky, in their eyes, to have our hands on something so precious. Cinnamon may no longer be “found” (or claimed to be found) in deep canyons guarded by large snakes, but its common place in our society has lessened its rarity.

In celebration of cinnamon, here’s an easy, seasonal recipe for apple cinnamon French toast. It is perhaps a recipe that has Westernized the glory of cinnamon lore, but when made with intention will prove to be the best French toast you’ve ever had.

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As is common with recipes of this simplicity, what makes it great is the quality of ingredients used. I would recommend using high quality butter (I’m fond of Kerrygold, personally) and a loaf of multigrain bread that was baked fresh but sat overnight and staled slightly. Ideally, fresh local fruit and quality Ceylon cinnamon would make an appearance.

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I know this isn’t an ideal kind of world and not everyone can drop five bucks on a block of Irish butter, so I can guarantee it will be delicious regardless of the bread you use. But, if I’m being honest, everything will taste better on an overcast fall morning when you take your time to get the pan nice and hot and use Madagascar vanilla. (Maybe that’s just me?)

Anyway, in honor of cinnamon, the recipe is as follows.


Apple Cinnamon French Toast

Ingredients:

  • Several slices of multigrain breadIMG_6845
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 c milk
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/4 t vanilla
  • 1 pear
  • 1 apple
  • 1/4c sugar
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1 t nutmeg
  • 2 T butter

Directions:

1IMG_6849. In a small bowl, beat eggs, milk, cinnamon and vanilla together. Set aside.

2. Dice the apple and pear into small pieces. In a small saucepan, melt 1 tsp butter. Add apple and pear, cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add sugar and spices, cook until sugar has turned into a sweet glaze for the fruit but has not yet caramelized, about 2 minutes. Turn off heat. Keep warm while prepping toast.

3. Slice your bread to desired thickness. Dunk into egg/milk mix, coating evenly and allowing excess to drip. In a wide pan over medium heat or using a griddle, melt butter to grease your pan.

4. Cook toast until golden brown. Flip.

5. Serve toast hot off the pan topped with the apple/pear compote. If desired, top with whipped cream.

Bonus Points: Top with toasted walnuts for extra fall depth and crunch.


Sources for further reading:

Desserts from a Bygone Era

As I type, I look like a chipmunk storing nuts for the winter.

I had my wisdom teeth removed a few days ago, and my naturally puffy cheeks billowed up like a couple of marshmallows on steroids. I have been on a steady diet of soups, smoothies, and mashed potatoes. The drugs have me emotionally compromised. Yesterday I cried because we ran out of gravy.

The plus side is this: the foggy weather has been conducive to doodling, blogging, pudding-making and exploring old cupboards. And, being a dental invalid, I have the free time to explore all such things.

The doodling has been successful….

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…as has the blogging. The pudding making was very fun. I’ll pass on my recipe. It’s so easy it can be accomplished even while on Percocet.

But the most valuable use of my free time, I think, has been the discovery of a Better Homes and Garden’s cookbook from 1960. Specifically a dessert cookbook. I recall digging this out of my grandmother’s archives, yet hadn’t cracked the cover to see what lay inside.

The recipes are a combination of old-school classics and intriguing, not-so-delicious sounding combinations. For example:

Swedish Fruit Soup (dried fruits rehydrated in currant jelly and tapioca)

Blue Cheese Melon Dip (which I might actually try… it calls for 4oz blue cheese, 3oz cream cheese, 2T milk and 2T ‘salad dressing’ beat until fluffy. The kind of dressing, however, is left unspecified.)

‘Lazy Mary Frosting–easiest of all!’ The instructions dictate, “While cake is hot, sprinkle with package of semi-sweet chocolate pieces; let stand until softened. Spread smooth with spatula. Your cake’s frosted and ready to serve in about the same time it takes to bake it!”

And, of course, Concord Grape Pie, which looks labor intensive and involves peeling the skin off of the grapes before simmering and straining the pulp to remove seeds.

The featured photographs scream ‘5o’s Housewife!’ and illustrate a glamorous style of food plating that has long since fallen out of fashion.

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Which begs the question, why don’t we serve sorbet in cantaloupes anymore?

Just eyeing the pages of this book brings back an intense desire to watch Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. I think perhaps a dinner party idea is in the works?

Regardless, food from an era of whips, gelatins and cupboard-cleaning fruitcakes appealed to me in my toothless state. So, as promised, here’s a pudding recipe that not only hearkens from the early 60’s, but will also take less than fifteen minutes to make.

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Ingredients:

3/4c sugar

3 T cornstarch or flour

3 c milk

4 egg yolks, beaten

1 T butter

1 1/2 t vanilla

Directions:

In a saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch. Stir in milk and cook over medium heat until thickened. (Stir frequently to prevent scalding.)

Once thick, drizzle a small amount of cream into the beaten egg yolks to temper. (Otherwise the hot cream will scramble the eggs. Gross.) Gradually stir about 1 cup of cream mixture into eggs.

Return eggs to saucepan and combine all together, stirring out any lumps. Cook until nearly bubbly and desired puddinglike texture has been reached.

Remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. (If desired–and not on conflicting meds, like myself — you can substitute brandy, amaretto or a liqueur of your choice for vanilla.)

Transfer into a bowl. Press a thin film of plastic wrap over the top to prevent a skin from forming, let cool until thoroughly chilled.

If you wish to make chocolate pudding, add 1/3 c unsweetened cocoa powder to the cornstarch and sugar mixture.

That’s it! Bon Appetite!


[Photographs and recipes from Better Homes and Garden’s Dessert Cookbook, 1960, Meredith Corporation.]

Introduction? Appetizer? Maybe Both.

“You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.” ~ Anthony Bourdain

 

If you were to look at my Google Search history, I imagine you’d laugh.

‘Quotes About Goat Cheese’ tops the list, followed closely by, ‘What Is A Filbert?’ For the record, a filbert is another name for a hazelnut. You see, 99% of my search history is food-related research, and not one iota of it has been driven by schoolwork. Curiosity, plain and simple, fuels my searches. Well, curiosity and a cappuccino served in a unique mug at my favorite coffee shop.

[Side note: any coffee shop willing to serve customers in actual mugs rather than sleeves is a winner in my book. ]

Anyway, despite the fact I am a shameless food history nut–no pun intended, after mentioning those Filberts–I always do my research away from home. I feel so much more productive studying food in a venue other than my apartment. Unless, of course, Anthony Bourdain is unraveling mysteries of the culinary universe on the Travel Channel, in which case I will sit with a pen and my notebook posed to jot down his clever phrases and outrageous discoveries from the comfort of my living room.

I devour food blogs. (Check out these favorites– Eat This Poem, Happyolks,and Plated Stories are my current top three.) I own more chef biographies than I do pairs of shoes. I have so many culinary magazines I could wallpaper a two-story house and still have enough to collage the patio.

I will also admit, I’m a menu thief. I find seasonal menus especially enchanting, better than a newspaper or a snapshot. It’s a moment in time. This is what’s seasonal, this is the price, this is right here, right now, this is what is good. Sometimes I smuggle them out in a large bag. Sometimes I ask. Sometimes they’re just given to me.

I am a culinarian. I am an epicurean. I am a student of gastronomy, I am obsessed, and that is perfectly okay, because I am not alone.

Although my favorite food blogs feature high-quality snapshots of gorgeous lighting and plating, I myself am an amateur photographer at best. My Instagram has less then 300 followers. I rely on a fancy camera that I don’t know how to use–point, shoot and sort through them later, that’s my motto.

So this post, this first interwebby combination of words, serves as sort of a preface. I love food, I adore it. I want to live in the cheese section of Whole Foods.

You’ll find a lot of good food here, and a lot of inspiration.

Welcome!