Saturday, July 31, 2010

Smilin' On a Saturday

Rachel, of the fabulously named Diary of a Chocoholic, started a great link-up today -- Saturday Smiles. Here's the premise:

I hope you've had a lot of things to make you smile this week. I have! So write up a list of things that have made you smile - whether it was out of joy, happiness, gratitude or humorous delight and link up!

Although I sometimes find them difficult to do, I am a big fan of gratitude lists ... and, of course, this is essentially that very thing. So, let me see what's made me smile since last weekend:

1. Finding my favorite peanut butter, Koeze's, on sale for $3.99 -- half the price that other stores sell it for!

2. Winning the gift card giveaway drawing that Karen of I Made It Through the Rain held, and enjoying a really fun meal at Applebee's tonight with Jeremy and Tom.

3. Bringing slices of Peanut Butter Pie to my co-workers Beth and Michele, and hearing that it was "really good pie."

4. Hearing at first that the brakes on my Suburban might cost $1500 to fix, because they required a new ABS, only to then have the head mechanic assess the situation and put in a new switch ... costing $201.11.

5. Luxuriating in my jammies last Sunday as Tom devoted himself to his artwork and I got a week's worth of blog posts ready, since I wouldn't have time each day this week to work on them.

6. Finding out that the fabulous Joan Nathan is coming to Ann Arbor's Jewish Book Festival in November to promote her new cookbook (being released this Fall) -- Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France!!!

7. Visiting with family and friends at a barbecue on Friday night, featuring perfect weather, burgers, pickles, cake and rugelach (chocolate-filled spiral cookies).

8. Having our regular Thursday lunch delivery screwed up, only to have an offering of apology brought when the items that had originally been left behind were brought. And what was this lovely gift? Flaky, creamy, rich, divine cannolis.

9. Baking chocolate chip cookies tonight for "my boys" -- Tom and Jeremy.

10. My dog, Fuzzybutt, who looks like a cross between a pot-bellied pig, a teddy bear and an Ewok from "Return of the Jedi." The pooch does a happy dance every time I walk in the door, it waddles, it has an OCD and likes to lick the rug and the furniture, and it just smiles at me and makes me laugh.

So, what's made YOU happy this week??? Write a post and link up at Diary of a Chocoholic!

Friday, July 30, 2010

My, Oh, My -- 9 Slices of Pie!!!

How often, anymore, does one get to gaze upon the beauty of 70 different homemade pies displayed upon a dining table that's been draped with a lace tablecloth?

You might find that many factory-produced specimens at Costco or Sam's Club; but homemade?? Handmade??? Our grandmothers might remember a time when such a display was common ... but these days, we tend to order other kinds of pies -- pizzas -- for social gatherings instead.

And that, truly, is a shame.

So thank goodness for Slow Food Huron Valley, Growing Hope, and the Homegrown Festival for sponsoring a fabulous event last Saturday night: Pie Lovers Unite!

"The Pie Lovers Unite! extravaganza honors pie-making traditions in Michigan by inviting people to bake, bring, share, and taste pies from around the area.

Pie Lovers Unite! demonstrates that a community is only as good as its homemade pie - and that we have a great community."

I had attended last year's festivities and enjoyed myself immensely; so when I received the invitation for this year ... well, how could I refuse?

Jeremy wasn't interested in attending, but Tom thought it was an intriguing notion. The price of admission was either $8 or a homemade pie. I didn't even go through my usual decision making brain paralysis, but readily decided to bring my now-famous Peanut Butter Pie.

I made sure to use Koeze's all-natural peanut butter, made in Grand Rapids on the west side of the state, which is such an exceptional product that it is difficult to adequately describe it.

First of all, the flavor is everything you want in peanut butter -- freshly roasted peanuts shine through, with just enough salt for enhancement. But even better is the texture, which is very thick and rich with miniscule pieces of peanut throughout ... not chunky, but not smooth either. And it is blessedly lacking the usual oiliness of natural, non-hydrogenated peanut butters. Lesser products are greasy and slimy and almost pourable ... bleah. Koeze's, however, is the standard by which all other peanut butters should be judged.

I also made sure to use another local product: peanut butter granola, a divine concoction made by the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op. (FYI: That's pronounced [IP-sih-LAN-tee], for those who aren't from 'round here ... it's Ypsi [IP-see], for short.) Instead of sprinkling chopped peanuts or toffee chips over the chocolate drizzle, this seemed the perfect option. It is divine with maple-flavored yogurt, too -- it smells like crumbled peanut butter cookies!

So, anyway ... pie in hand, Tom and I headed off to Ypsi and an evening of festivity.

I happily saw my friend Jen, one of the coordinators and hostesses for the evening. And it was also good to see a woman named Suzy who works for our local Jewish newspaper, whom I hadn't seen in ages. She introduced me to her friend Jim, who had made both a Beef & Guinness pie and a beautiful Blueberry Streusel pie. Suzy, unfortunately, was recovering from a bout with poison ivy, so Jim had made two pies for their admission and she promised to make a fabulous fruit pie next year.

Tom and I watched as more and more pies were entered into the competition, and the table filled with all sorts of varieties: rhubarb, cherry, raspberry, meringue, spinach, cheese, chocolate ... if you can think of a type of pie, I'm sure it was represented that night.

And then the evening's amusements began. We had been treated to the talents of a pie-anist playing the upright as we all gathered. There was a pie-ku competition, and here is the one I entered:

Pie served with whipped cream?
Maybe pie served with ice cream?
I know -- I'll have both!

Alas, the card I'd written my pie-ku on wasn't drawn from the basket to win a prize. But it was fun to recite it nonetheless ... :)

There was a pie walk with rounds for varying age groups, which took place as the judges sat in a front corner of the display room tasting and testing away. And then -- yay!!! -- it was time for everyone to sample the offerings. With 70 pies having been cut into at least 8 slices each, there was half a pie's worth of slices available for each attendee. So there was ample opportunity to try a wide variety.

And so, try we did -- we were up to the challenge! Between us, Tom and I managed to get 9 different slices (and he very sweetly took a slice of my Peanut Butter Pie, too, since he likes it so much).

Now for the rundown on all of these options, since I know you're all panting at the prospect:

Clockwise, starting at the top:

The summer vegetable pie looked lovely, with nearly transparent slices of cucumber and radish, sprinkled with hints of dill, placed over a creamy white base. However, the base turned out to be sour cream with no other discernible flavor; and eating mouthfuls of sour cream with bits of pie crust was not particularly enticing.

The vegan chocolate pie was calling to Tom, a former vegetarian and vegan; I had visions of tofu and was none too thrilled by it. But for my sweetie's sake, I got the second-to-last piece (it pays sometimes to be from NYC and to know how to work a crowd!). And I must be a big enough person to admit that it was remarkably good! I would love to know the ingredients, because there was no "off" tofu taste; it was smooth and creamy, and there was just a slight hint of peppermint. *I* -- the Queen of the Tofu Loathers -- would actually make this, even if I learned that some soy stuff was a part of the mix.

Jim's blueberry pie was a thing of beauty throughout! I absolutely loved it!

The coconut cream pie was rich and smooth and lovely -- I liked it very much ... :)

The spinach pie was cold (an unfortunate hazard of an event such as this, with no ability to keep things warm) and soggy. Had it been served hot from the oven, had the spinach been squeezed more before baking or had the pie been baked more thoroughly, it might have been wonderful.

Also clockwise, starting at the top:

My peanut butter pie. I am proud to say that when we got to the table, there were only 2 pieces of it left -- if it wasn't the first to go, it was very close to it. As Tom and I selected our options, I watched as my empty pie plate was taken away. People's Choice Award, perhaps??? I hope those who managed to get slices of it enjoyed it.

Our slice of the chocolate meringue pie didn't have much meringue, which is unfortunate -- I love meringue. But it was very rich and very good nonetheless.

The blueberry cream pie was kinda sour, with a lemony-ish cream that didn't really enhance the blueberries. I'd had much higher hopes for this one.

The French rhubarb pie was a bit sour ... to be expected with rhubarb, but it could have used some orange or some strawberries or some cinnamon to soften the blow.

And then, after the indulgence, it was time for the prizes. Jim's Beef & Guinness Pie won for best savory entry -- yay!!! I didn't get to try it, but it did look like a hearty, rustic thing of beauty.

The Vegan Chocolate Pie won my category -- Sweet, Not Fruit -- and I can honestly say that I'm not offended. It was surprisingly good!

A Raspberry Meringue variety won Best Fruit Pie.

There were several Honorable Mentions that I don't remember, and categories for Best Pie Crust (featuring a beloved Grandma recipe, made by a 20-something young man -- who'da thunk???) and Best Use of Local Ingredients (which was won by a kale and polenta pie, I think). There was even a Kids' Pie category as well; as Kim Bayer, one of the organizers, stated (paraphrased, since I didn't write it down word-for-word) -- "It's important to teach your children how to bake pie, since they'll be the ones bringing you pie in the nursing home!"

And then there was a newly devised category created by the judges on the spur of the moment, for Best Name: "How're Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On the Farm Now That They've Seen Paree?" This was in honor of a pie whose baker admitted her entry was a failed attempt at making something from a Julia Child recipe. But the title won the day!

So, we came, we saw, we ate ... and ate and ate! I didn't win a prize, but Tom and I had a fabulous time anyway celebrating food and fellowship ... a perfect Saturday night ... :)

Oh, I'm so flattered! Look at the lovely compliment this post received from Andrea at Pumpkin Tart:

I want to give a special mention to my favorite blog post of the month. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word (though I may be biased based on subject material).

I'm so thrilled! Please return the love by checking out her recipe for Chocolate Tapioca Pie, a comfort food extraordinaire ... :)


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Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Now It's Dark"

I'm not particularly a fan of David Lynch, though I did love the first season of "Twin Peaks" with all its eccentricity. So, of course, when Tom and I were at an upscale grocery store the other day and found Blue Velvet apricots, my first thought was that kitschy Bobby Vinton song; Tom's, as I'm sure you've already guessed, was the movie.

So I thought about titling this post "She wore blue velvet," since the apricot is, indeed, wearing a blue coat now that it's mated with a plum. But that seemed trite and obvious, so I dug a bit for a quote from the film. And lemme tell ya, THAT took some doing! Most of the lines had -- shall we say? -- considerable vulgarities ... not my style. I'm not offended if the words actually serve the character's purpose (as they do in "Pulp Fiction," for example). But I was not going to post anything on my pretty pink blog that didn't represent me in all my prissy, girly-girl glory!

But anyway ... always a digression, isn't there???

I found the perfect line, spoken by Kyle MacLachlan's character: "Now it's dark." It's been so long since I've seen the movie that I have no clue whatsoever what it refers to ... could be anything, with David Lynch. But it's ideal for this situation: now the apricot is dark.

And it's also sweeter -- more plum flavor than apricot, though before you cut it it clearly looks like an apricot whose fuzz was injected with some ink. Once it's cut, it looks a lot like a plum -- juicier than an apricot, which tends to have a firmer flesh.

I've eaten several varieties of pluot -- a different cross of plum and apricot: some greenish and mottled, some purple, some red. And they are clearly variations on the theme of plum. This, however, appears to be an apricot that has stopped breathing and turned dark blue as a result, until you delve into the depths and find distinct evidence of plum within.

I always love to find new and intriguing foods, particularly produce. I've eaten yellow carrots and ones that were maroon on the outside and orange in the center ... for the most part, they all tasted like standard carrots.

Tomatoes of all colors -- from red to pink to yellow to green to striped -- are fabulous, each with its own unique fragrance and flavor.

I love multi-colored beets -- traditional deep red, orange, and even pink-and-white ones that are reminiscent of candy canes.

I loathe green peppers (I can eat them if someone puts them into something that they're serving me, but they're too bitter and too overpowering to really be suitable as a food, methinks). But red ones, orange, yellow, and even purple ... these I can go with either sliced and used as dippers, or sauteed, or roasted.

When nutritionists tell us we need to eat colorful food, these beautiful Blue Velvet apricots certainly help in that mission! And they were so good that, if they weren't so wretchedly expensive, I would absolutely buy them again ....



Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fabulous Finds!
I absolutely adore thrift shops, rummage sales and such! Cute, quirky, kitschy things at fabulous prices??? Oh, I am so there!!!

And it seems I'm not the only one, since there's an entire Nifty Thrifty Tuesdays group going on that I've only just found out about! I could enthuse about all the clothes -- virtually my entire wardrobe (I can dress myself from head-to-toe for less than $15 every day) -- I've bought for anywhere from 50-cents to $4. I could rave about books I've bought for a mere pittance. But, being that my little pink blog is devoted to food, it seems only logical to show off a few of the dishes I've acquired in my frugal travels.

Here are a couple of adorable espresso cups I found recently, while shopping with Jeremy. Jeremy, I have to say, is an exceptional shopper ... frankly, he enjoys it too much. So any 18-to-maybe-21 year old women in Ann Arbor who are looking for a handsome young man with a good eye, dedication to helping you spend your money on clothes or shoes or almost any other item that it's possible to shop for, and sufficient integrity to call you when he says he will ... my son is the man of your dreams!

I don't need these -- I drink half a pot of coffee every morning in a gigantic crossword puzzle-themed mug that Jeremy gave me a couple of years ago; these little cups hold a tiny fraction of what I normally ingest. But they are too cute ... and, coffee addict that I am, they are perfectly themed. So I have no room for them in my cupboard and no use for them ... did that matter??? Of course not! They cost me 80-cents each, I think. Jeremy said, "Get them." So I did.

These next two items are really very cool, and I've used them for drinking coffee (when the gigantic mug needs to be washed), for sipping tea, and for serving ice cream. They're more useful, since they're a standard size. They are a sturdy ceramic in lovely shades of periwinkle and light blue; and, as you can see, they feature the critical aspects of any beverage or food -- "flavour" and "aroma."

Most of my plates and many of my other cups are from sales and thrift shops, too ... what can I say? I can't turn down a good deal on something that might prove useful -- after all, I regularly take pictures of my food for this blog. If only I could write off my thrift store finds as "work related!"


Monday, July 26, 2010

Yenta Maria's Cucina Italiana

If you haven't yet signed up for The Foodie Exchange, you absolutely must do so!!! I took some of the goodies that I received in my gift box and made the most fabulous meal this past Friday night!

But I suppose I should start at the beginning, shouldn't I, rather than in the middle ...?

In trolling through various blogs, I managed to bumble onto the Foodie Exchange site quite by accident; I signed up and thought I'd loiter a bit and sorta see how things progressed, read updates, etc.

Then almost immediately, a lovely and friendly woman from Milan wrote to me proposing that we do an exchange. Rossella and I traded emails, friended each other on Facebook, and agreed to send each other goodie packages with treats from our respective homelands.

Here's what I sent to her to represent Michigan:

- Al Dente pasta from Whitmore Lake, which is north of Ann Arbor

- dried tart cherries, which northern Michigan (especially Traverse City) is noted for

- caramel corn from Kilwin's, which has stores throughout the state

- spicy pumpkin seeds from Eden Organic, which makes snacks and canned beans south of here in Clinton, but which originated in Ann Arbor

- Better Made potato chips from Detroit

- Kellogg's cereals from Battle Creek (2 hours west of Ann Arbor)

- a catalogue from the famous Ann Arbor institution Zingerman's, to peruse

- a postcard showing the University of Michigan -- Ann Arbor's "raison d'etre"

- a postcard with a recipe for cherry pie, using those tart cherries we're so famous for

I had wanted to send all sorts of other fabulous items -- Vernors ginger ale, Mackinac Island fudge, Sanders milk chocolate hot fudge sauce, Koeze's peanut butter, for example; but they were prohibitively heavy, would explode, or would melt ... alas! Rossella is also a vegetarian, so no Jiffy mixes despite they're being very easy to use, small, and inexpensive; the large, heavy box of all-purpose mix is the only one that doesn't have lard in it.

And in return, Rossella sent me: a small bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, spaghetti, herbs and spices to cook in oil and toss spaghetti with, Arborio rice with bits of truffle, tomato paste, crackers, amaretti (which were sadly crushed, but will make a perfect topping for a dessert, perhaps), packets of Nutella (which unfortunately exploded all over everything), a recipe pamphlet, a tote bag, a placemat, and saffron. Wow ... truly, my glee and my gratitude are beyond my verbose capabilities to express!

So on Friday night, I put some of these goodies to use in making dinner. I drizzled some olive oil in a pan and sauteed some chicken breasts. And since I had to season the meat anyway, I used salt, pepper, and a sprinkle from the pasta herbs/spices. A drizzle of lemon juice to finish it off, and that was that!

And then I set about making a classic of Italian cuisine: Risotto alla Milanese, which Rossella's hometown is justly famous for. Simple ingredients -- rice, stock, saffron, cheese. But oh, what a glorious thing it is!!!

Risotto is not difficult to make at all, but it requires time and patience. A little bit of liquid is added to the rice, then the rice is stirred while it cooks; once the liquid has been mostly absorbed, you add a bit more and continue to stir. Continue this until an entire liter of stock has been used and the rice is exquisitely creamy. Arborio rice is absolutely required for this, as it has the requisite starch content; any other rice will not do the job properly.

So, on Friday night I converted my Ann Arbor kitchen into a "Cucina Italiana," complete with Pavarotti singing in the background. I invested a fair amount of time and a lot of love into my dinner, and was amply rewarded with compliments. Mille grazie -- 1000 "thank you"s -- Rossella!!! There are many more fabulous meals awaiting us with all the lovely, lovely gifts you sent ... :)

Lemony Chicken Breasts with Risotto alla Milanese

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 tablespoons Italian herb/spice mixture
2 large skinless chicken breasts, halved lengthwise
juice of 1 lemon

Heat olive oil in a 10" skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle salt, pepper and herb/spice mixture over both sides of the chicken breasts, then cook for 5 minutes on each side until nicely browned. Squeeze the lemon juice over the chicken and turn heat to simmer.

2 tablespoons butter
1 small red onion, diced
300 grams Arborio rice
1 liter chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 cup cubes of Parmigiano cheese (cut into 1/4" cubes)
pinch of saffron
3/4 cup peas
1/2 cup shredded Parmigiano

While the chicken cooks and simmers, heat the butter in a 2-1/2 quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent. Add the rice and stir to coat it with the butter; saute for 1 minute.

Very slowly -- about 1/2 cup at a time -- pour some of the stock over the rice. Stir until the liquid has mostly been absorbed, then add another 1/2 cup of stock and continue in the same manner, stirring constantly.

When half of the liquid has been used, add the salt and the cubes of Parmigiano.

Add the saffron to the remaining stock, then continue adding stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly. When the rice is very creamy, add the peas; cook for 1 more minute, then stir in the shredded Parmigiano and serve with the chicken. Serves 4 as a light entree, or 8 as a side dish.

Of course, this is a perfect addition to Cinnamon Girl's Side Dish Showdown, which I've been neglectful of in recent weeks with insufficient time to prepare proper dinners. This was a perfect meal for the end of a long and stressful week, for Shabbat, for family (which, of course, includes Jeremy in addition to both Tom and my very dear friend Wendy ... as far as I'm concerned, family is comprised of those who love you whether you share DNA or not).

I'm really at my happiest in the kitchen, so a dish that involves continual stirring interspersed with conversation and kisses (since Tom kept me company as I cooked, even helping to stir just because he's a sweetheart) ... well, who could ask for anything more??? I need to get back into this habit, make an effort to do this more often instead of rushing around quite so much ....

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