Friday, May 22, 2015

Flower Power

I have a number of plants and shrubs that flower throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall. I enjoy them all, and they provide nectar for pollinators as well, which helps my garden. But there are a number of other "volunteers" that spread and grow throughout my yard, and they serve much the same purpose. So while some people may refer to them as weeds, and you do need to be careful lest they choke out other items you want to preserve, for the most part I give them free reign and let them do what they do best.

The first flowers I notice in the Spring are violets. Usually just one will open up to start, then the rest will follow within a few days. I find them everywhere, as they spread easily and persistently, but they are still beautiful:

spring violets

Another favorite is this little flowering stem which, as of yet, I haven't been able to identify. But I love those delicate blooms and the dark indigo stripes at the base of each milky-white petal. They are so short, they usually escape the lawnmower completely:

I call these creepers bugleweed, which might not be correct, but the blossoms do have a bugle-like shape. Butterflies in particular seem to love those purple blooms, and while they tend to overrun things if they can, they are easy to pull back without having to remove them entirely:

And, of course, no lawn would be complete without "the yellow flower" :-)


Monday, May 18, 2015

Upon Request: Chocolate-Mint Brownies

Sometimes people don't always think to ask for what they want—they're busy, they're tired, they forget. We all know how it is. But sometimes there's just something we really, REALLY want, and we'd really, REALLY like someone to make it for us. So when I received this request for a favorite recipe, with a reminder that I "haven't made it in years", I knew what I needed to do!

Pan of Chocolate-Mint Brownies

Chocolate-Mint Brownies

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
2 Tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
Green food coloring (optional)

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 Tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 9 x 13-inch pan and set aside.

Make the base: In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then stir in eggs and vanilla until combined. Add flour mixture in two batches, mixing until incorporated, then scrape into prepared pan (batter will be thick). Spread out evenly to the edges, and bake 30-32 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate until fully chilled—at least two hours or overnight.

Make the filling: Cream together butter, powdered sugar, milk and peppermint extract until smooth. Tint filling light green, if desired. Spread evenly over chilled brownie base. Cover and chill again for at least one hour.

Make the topping: In a small pan over low heat, gently melt chocolate chips and butter together. Let cool for about 10-15 minutes, then carefully pour and spread evenly over the filling. Let cool completely on the counter, then cover and chill again until firm. Cut into squares and enjoy!

Notes: These do take some time and planning, and it is helpful to make the brownie base one day, then do the other two layers the next. For the filling, you can use two Tablespoons Creme de Menthe in place of the milk and peppermint extract. At two Tablespoons shy of a full pound of butter, and over four cups of sugar, these are definitely decadent—start with small servings!


Friday, May 15, 2015

Gettin' Figgy With It: Basic Fig Compote

Around this same time last year, I made the fig compote of my dreams—tangy, sweet, and very well-balanced. The only problem? I wasn't really following a recipe, and never bothered to write anything down. OOPS! As a first attempt since then, I thought I'd try a more basic version, with just a few ingredients, and work my way up from there. I certainly have more work to do, but in the meantime I still have a lovely, rich condiment to enjoy!

Preparing to make fig compote with rosemary

Basic Fig Compote

8 oz. dried figs, stems removed and finely diced (I used Mission "figlets")
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Juice of one orange (about 1/4 cup)
2-3 grinds of pepper

Add all ingredients to a small pan, and pour in enough water to cover the figs. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until figs have absorbed the liquid, stirring occasionally. If figs are not soft enough to mash with the back of a spoon at this point, add more water and continue to cook. The whole process should take about 20-30 minutes. Once done, finish mashing with the back of a spoon, let cool completely, then store in an airtight container in the fridge for a week, or freeze for up to three months.

Notes: The consistency of this compote is ultimately up to you—I wanted mine on the softer side, and added water a few times before I considered it "done". You could also substitute a good red wine for some (or all) of the water used here. As with many things, this is best done at least one day in advance to let the flavors develop. Serve this with any meat of your choice, or for making a sweet/savory grilled cheese with your favorite, extra-sharp cheddar.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Higher and Higher

This is the second in what will hopefully be a four-part series on The High Line. The first part can be found here.

As the days became increasingly warmer, and I could see the trees in my own yard start to bud and blossom, I knew it was time for my Spring visit to The High Line. Seizing an opportunity at the very end of last month, I set out to discover how things had changed since Winter:

high line spring new york city

Certainly there were the usual suspects to see - things like redbuds and other flowering trees, plus many varieties of crocus, daffodil, tulip, and other Spring harbingers. But in addition to this mix, there were some other things that were new to me, such as this serpent-like prairie smoke, both softly fuzzy and spiky at the same time:

One plant I'd read about, but never seen in person, was the strangely beautiful fothergilla, of which The High Line has several varieties:

The most intriguing little plant for me was this Indian rhubarb, which blooms in Spring from what looks like nothing more than a stick, and which will (I've read) eventually produce voluminous green leaves:

Because it was warmer, I was able to pay more attention to the non-plant installations featured on The High Line, such as this view-through design based on the Ghent Alterpiece, which creates a framework for looking out as well as looking in:

I also made sure the visit the Rail Yards, which I had missed the last time, with its dozens of train cars trailing into the distance:

There was a lot to see, and it was almost dizzying, but I'm still looking forward to my Summer excursion. I know there will be an abundance of things to enjoy. And so, with yet another promise of things to come:


Friday, May 08, 2015

Trying Times: Featherweight Breakfast Cake

As I prepared to work with a group of children to make a family recipe, I felt calm and confident—after all, I had made this particular recipe most of my life. It was easy, delicious, and sure to be a hit! But as the actual day drew near, I knew I needed to refresh my skills, especially because it had been six months since the last time I'd made it. I set aside some time, going through the recipe with extra care and attention, and produced what is still an all-time family favorite:

Cinnamon Sugar Breakfast Cake Slice

Featherweight Breakfast Cake

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/2 cup whole milk
1 large egg, room temperature

2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit; butter an 8-inch square baking pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, salt and baking powder until fully incorporated. In a 2-cup measuring cup, measure milk and stir in melted butter and egg; add wet ingredients all at once to dry ingredients, and mix until just combined and all the dry ingredients are moistened. Scrape into prepared pan, smoothing the top out to the edges. In a small bowl, stir together topping ingredients, and sprinkle evenly over batter. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Can be served warm.

Notes: This recipe uses a fair amount of baking powder, which gives the cake an extra-fluffy interior. As always, don't feel constrained by the title—this is just as good in the afternoon as it is for breakfast!


Monday, May 04, 2015

Handmade Gift Roundup: Make Something for Mom!

In addition to serving up some of the brunch ideas here, there's still time to make a handmade gift (or two!) for Mother's Day. Choose something that suits her taste, something she would use and enjoy - she'll appreciate the effort, and you'll have had a little fun in the process!

Handmade Notecards: These come together more quickly than you might think, and the variations are endless. The craft stores have beautiful papers available, so you're sure to find something in exactly Mom's style.

Homemade Body Scrub: Just a few ingredients make for a spa-like indulgence. You can customize the scrub using Mom's favorite herbs and citrus. Don't be afraid to make this in advance - this scrub becomes even more aromatic over time.

Handstitched Coasters: What does Mom do when she needs to put down her drink? She finds a coaster, of course! Use the instructions from the holiday coasters to create these in any theme she would like, and make several so she can use them throughout the house.

Herb and Spice Mixes/Seasoned Salt: If Mom likes to cook and bake, a few of these mixes might be just the gift for her. Tuck them into a basket with some other goodies - and don't forget to include her favorite bottle of wine :-)


Friday, May 01, 2015

Taking Stock: Homemade Chicken Stock

Stocks and broths are definitely having a moment right now, finding popularity in the least likely of places - the good news is, they really are good for you! I'd been wanting to make not just a regular stock or broth, but something that would serve as a restorative beverage as well. I began saving chicken bones, plus a few odd ends of celery and carrot, stashing them in the freezer along the way:

When I deemed I had enough contributors for a small batch of stock, plus a fresh lemon on hand, I thawed my stash and added everything to a large pan, along with a few bay leaves, a teaspoon of peppercorns, and about a Tablespoon of Kosher salt:

Preparing to make chicken stock

I filled with water to cover the contents, brought the stock to a boil, and reduced to simmering (uncovered) for about 3 1/2 hours. I checked regularly for any impurities, but thankfully there was never anything to skim. I topped off the water a few times during the process, but then left it alone after that, not wanting to dilute the flavor any further. Towards the end of the cooking time, I adjusted with another few teaspoons of salt. When I felt the stock was "done", I turned off the heat and let it cool, uncovered, for about an hour:

My solids were large enough that I could remove them with a slotted spoon. Only a few very tiny bits of chicken remained, but I wasn't bothered by them, and they would just add protein. I found I had a delicately golden liquid, tangy from the lemon and slightly bitter from the rind, with a good, rounded flavor:

I can see not only drinking this warm on its own, but also heating until piping and adding raw veggies to let wilt for a "fresh" garden soup. A few dumplings or chicken meatballs wouldn't go amiss, either. All in all, a little time and planning gave me a versatile ingredient from leftover bits, a few pantry items, and some water. How wonderful is that?