Thursday, December 4, 2014

Essential Ingredients

Now that the dust has settled in my kitchen after the Thanksgiving frenzy, and the leftovers have dwindled to a pot of soup in the fridge, it’s time to think about December cooking and baking. I’ve written about some holiday favorites before, but lately I’ve been thinking about essential ingredients—what goes into those favorites, what I cannot do without. They break down naturally into the five sensations our tongue’s taste receptors respond to: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. For those not familiar with umami, a more recent addition, it’s the Japanese word for “savory deliciousness” and is associated with foods high in glutamate, such as fish, meat, specific vegetables, and fermented and aged foods. Although difficult to define, it’s glaringly obvious when umami is missing. I found it challenging to come up with a list of just ten essentials, but have narrowed it down by limiting it to ingredients I never eat on their own.

Sea salt, preferably coarse: Salt of the earth, grain of salt, worth one’s salt—there’s a reason so many common expressions involve salt and that “salary” is derived from the word. It’s a necessary mineral in the human body, not just an ingredient, and offers sensual satisfaction as well. Unfortunately it’s often applied with an indiscriminate hand, but a judicious amount of salt enhances the flavor of just about anything, and can even be transformative. Think of the difference between plain potatoes and potatoes with a sprinkling of salt…no comparison. 

Freshly ground black pepper: Black peppercorns, especially Tellicherry with their deep complexity, can be just as transformative as salt. They’re not cheap but a little goes a long way, and they’re so far above common pre-ground black pepper that it’s hard to believe they’re in the same spice family. It’s not surprising they’ve long been called the King of Spices. We go through a lot of freshly ground black pepper in our house, and I was happy that Isabel has learned to value its virtues so much that a pepper grinder was one of the first things she bought for her new apartment this past fall. Although I use a lot of spices in my cooking and baking, this is the one I couldn’t do without.

Garlic: Is it an ingredient, or is it a food?  I have to admit I enjoy it on its own, roasted, but I couldn’t not include it on this list because it is so much an essential ingredient in my kitchen that the list would simply be incomplete without it. I add it to just about everything I cook, from a single, subtle clove to lend depth to a sauce, to an overt, generous handful. Fortunately everyone else in my household loves, or at least likes, it too. 

Shallots: Similar to garlic, shallots walk the line between ingredient and food. I have been known to eat them caramelized by the spoonful. Also like garlic, they truly are essential to my cooking, both raw and cooked. When they’re slowly softening on the stove, they fill the house with an incomparably homey aroma. If you’re still puzzling over what umami tastes like, caramelized shallots are an excellent example, as is roasted garlic.

Fresh herbs: It’s impossible to choose just one herb because I use so many of them so frequently in my cooking, plus each one has is its own unique and pleasing flavor. Basil, thyme, sage, savory, marjoram, cilantro, and lavender—I grow all of these right out my back door. Stepping outside in the middle of making dinner to decide which one to snip and throw in the pot is one of life’s simple joys. I also have a special fondness for rosemary because I can grow it on a windowsill all winter long. Fresh herbs are another great example of umami.

Extra virgin olive oil: Butter (the real, all natural kind) is a close second, but if truth be told I cook with olive oil much more than with butter, and I prefer it with bread as well. I lean towards those that are slightly bitter, full bodied, and “pique” in the back of the throat, a description I learned in France when selecting olive oil from a market vendor. An oil that has “pique” possesses a pleasant sharpness on the finish. If you set a dish of full-bodied olive oil down in front of me along with a loaf of crusty bread, it’s sure to disappear fast. 

Balsamic vinegar: Perhaps because of its close association with wine, I’m a big fan of vinegar. Balsamic vinegar, in particular, balances sourness with subtle sweetness resulting in a complex sensation that I never tire of.  I like the sourness of lemons too and sometimes mix up my vinaigrettes by using citrus instead of vinegar, but overall I prefer the more layered sourness of a quality vinegar. Adding a splash to a hearty soup or braise creates depths of flavor that never taste vinegary; they just taste better.

Cocoa powder: This wonder ingredient is essential for making anything chocolate, of course. Enough said. But I will add that its natural bitterness is one of its best qualities. I like my chocolate very dark. With just a hint of sweetness. In general, Americans undervalue bitterness, gravitating overwhelmingly toward sweetness. European friends have told me that in the US everything tastes sweet. Unfortunately for the undiscerning eater, this is true. I’m thankful I was not born with a sweet tooth and actually prefer bitter over sweet. The idea of sweetening my coffee is repellent to me, I’d choose bitter greens over sweetened yams, and as for milk chocolate? Non, merci.

Maple syrup: Ok, I admit sometimes recipes are enhanced by a touch of sweetness. And I do enjoy a sweet dessert every now and then. So on the rare occasions when sweetness is called for, like holiday baking, I turn to maple syrup (or maple sugar) whenever I can. It’s far superior to cane sugar in both flavor and nutrition. Honey is a close runner-up, but since my family and I are Vermonters, maple syrup courses through our veins (thankfully our friends David and Louise Brynn keep us well stocked). 

Vanilla: Often associated with sweet foods, although not sweet in and of itself, vanilla is highly aromatic and imparts a heady allure to everything it touches. No wonder it often shows up as a base note in colognes and perfumes. It enhances the flavor of many foods, especially baked goods, and can also stand on its own, hence its honored position as the most popular ice cream in America. I recently made some vanilla extract with beans one of Chris’s colleagues gave us from Madagascar where she does research (although in actuality vanilla “beans” are not beans, but instead are the cured fruit pods of an orchid). The extract has been steeping for four months and is now ready for use and giving as homemade vanilla also makes an inspired DIY host/hostess gift during the holidays.

There you have it, my essentials. So too during the month of December, there are certain fundamental ingredients for a happy holiday season. In addition to good food and drink mine include: family, friends, music, light, spirit, warmth, generosity, and traditions old and new. 

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Homemade Vanilla Extract

3 vanilla beans
1 750 ml bottle of quality vodka (or bourbon)

With a sharp knife, split the vanilla beans lengthwise. Place the beans in the bottle of vodka, seal it, and let it steep in a cool, dark cabinet for at least 4 months. Occasionally shake the bottle gently to mix. When it has finished steeping, discard the beans and pour the extract into sterilized containers.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What I'm Thankful For

Every year at Thanksgiving we begin the meal by going around the table and saying what we’re all thankful for. We’ve been doing this since our girls were little and were first starting to talk (a popular contribution at that age was “Pie!”). Our guests are always invited to join in, and they always do, bringing their personalities and varying levels of comfort to this family tradition. What I’m thankful for each year hasn’t really changed over time, although in an effort to not allow the food on our plates to grow cold, I usually compress it into a sentence or two. But here on my blog, I have ample room to elaborate. So elaborate I shall, in the spirit of the upcoming holiday. Here goes.

I’m thankful for my family. That’s always first. For Chris—and nearly 25 years of marriage to my best friend. Who, notwithstanding some challenges along the way, loves and accepts me—weaknesses, flaws, and all. He’s still my dreamboat, and life is rarely dull. 

For our daughters Isabel and Faye who, despite more complicated pressures than I faced growing up, are more well-adjusted than I ever was at their age. I’m thankful for their interesting, strong, beautiful, loving selves, and how they each manifest those qualities in their own unique ways. 

And for the rest of my family, especially my mom and sister Lynne. I don’t get to see them very often, but in some way they’re always with me.

I’m thankful for good health. I make healthy living a priority in my life, but sometimes things are out of our control. As I traverse middle age, I’m all the more aware of being grateful for good health.

I’m thankful for meaningful, fulfilling work. It won’t make me rich, but it’s challenging and satisfying and just the right amount so I can maintain balance, another priority. Plus I get to be my own boss. I’m really thankful for that.

I’m thankful for good friends near and far. It’s not a big circle, but I’m more into quality than quantity when it comes to friends, and just about everything else. You know who you are.

I’m thankful for our pets, Callie and Chocolat. In my next life I wouldn't mind being one of them.

I’m thankful for the ability to travel, not only as a tourist, but for the extended travel I’ve had the opportunity to do. It’s when I’m settling in and discovering a place gradually, like I’ve had the opportunity to do a few different times, that I feel like I learn the most about the world.


I’m thankful for a home I love in a quirky, little village in a quirky, little state. It’s one of the most diverse places I’ve ever lived—not racially or ethnically perhaps, but in most other ways. And it’s gorgeous ten and a half months of the year.

Finally, I’m thankful for good food, much of it produced right here in Vermont. I’m thankful I have access to quality food grown and raised in a thoughtful way by people who care about their impact on the planet. Most of what is on our Thanksgiving table will have been produced on small-scale farms within about 50 miles of our home, whether it’s turkey, vegetables, or the makings of a pie. Yeah, I’m thankful for pie too.

To help support those in need, I hope you’ll join me in donating to your local food shelf this holiday season, and throughout the year.

Classic Apple Pie with Buttermilk Spice Ice Cream

Makes one 9-inch double crust pie with ample ice cream

To make the ice cream:
2 cups real buttermilk
½ cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
pinch of cloves
pinch of cardamom

In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sugar, and salt until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the cream, vanilla, and spices. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight, stirring occasionally to distribute the spices. Follow the instructions on your ice cream maker to make into ice cream.

To make the pie:

Prepare the crust:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ pound cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup ice water

You can make the crust the old-fashioned way with a pastry blender, but I find that a food processor works just as well and is a heck of a lot easier. Put the flour, salt, and butter in the processor and process about 10 seconds, until the mixture is grainy. Add the ice water a little at a time, while the machine is going, and process up to 30 seconds. Be careful not to over process. The dough should just hold together when you pinch it. If it doesn’t add a little more water.

Remove the dough onto waxed paper (or your preferred surface) and shape it into two flat disks (do not over handle it). Wrap each disk in waxed paper and chill for an hour.

Prepare the pie:
9 apples (I like McIntosh), peeled, cored and cut into eighths
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
pinch of cloves
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. In a large bowl, combine the apples and lemon juice. Sprinkle with the sugar and spices and stir gently until the apples are well coated.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough disks out with a rolling pin until they’re even and about ¼-inch thick. Transfer one disk to a pie plate. Put the apples on top of the crust, mounding them toward the center. Add the butter pieces, distributing them evenly over the apples. Cover with the second crust and trim off any extra. Seal the rim (I like to pinch it together in a crimped pattern, but a fork works well too), and vent the top with a fork or knife.

Put the pie in the oven and lower it to 375˚F. Bake about 40 minutes, until the crust is golden brown (be careful not to over bake and burn your crust). Serve warm, topped with ice cream.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Inconstant Gardener (or Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Gardening)

First official day of fall today, although we had our first hard frost a few nights ago, always a more definitive marker for the end of summer than a date on the calendar. It’s felt like fall for a few weeks now, though, with Isabel back at college and Faye absorbed in her busy high school life. Chris is back to teaching, and I’m trying to buckle down to a more productive work schedule myself. At the same time, September weather is usually the best of the year, with clear skies, crisp air, and a gentle sun. It drifts through the skylight above my desk, pulling me away from my computer and outside for a hike, bike, kayak or, so I can reassure myself I’m still being productive, to the garden.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Island Time

When most people think of Vermont, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Green Mountains, thanks to their popular ski slopes and hiking trails. But an equally notable natural resource, and a highlight of the state for me, is Lake Champlain. Friends from out of state are often surprised to hear that it’s the sixth largest freshwater lake in the country, after the five Great Lakes. Spanning 120 miles along Vermont’s western side, it’s flanked by New York’s Adirondack Mountains and also offers spectacular views of the Greens.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Southern Exposure

I’ve been on the road again, this time to the Southeast, specifically Virginia and North Carolina. We packed up the car and drove down, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line near the town in Maryland where I spent most of my childhood. Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as a Southerner. Maryland, despite being below the Line, was technically a border state during the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam, which resulted in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, was just down the road, but at the same time one of my high school acquaintances was a direct descendent of Robert E. Lee. And the street I grew up on has a former slave auction block, now partially obscured by some shrubbery, on one of its corners.