Friday, August 15, 2014

Exploring the United Kingdom's Orkney Islands, plus a Favorite Shortbread Recipe



I am on vacation in the UK now, traveling about the islands in the Orkney chain off the north coast of Scotland. These islands are remarkable both for their breathtaking natural beauty and wealth of major archaeological sites.
View from Hackness Battery, island of Hoy
 The air and water are clean and clear and landscapes serene and bucolic. Since I am on the road visiting a new island nearly every day, I'm going to keep this post short, and mostly let the images tell the story of our trip.

Cattle grazing on the Orkney Mainland island

Sheep grazing on the island of  Sanday
As the two photos just above suggest, farming is the major industry; we've seen cattle and sheep grazing on all twelve islands we visited. Archeological evidence indicates that the inhabitants have raised cattle here for more than 5,000 years--their bones have been found in Neolithic settlement sites, including the amazing Skara Brae pictured below; a whole community lived in this stone village dating back to about 3,000 BC!
Skara Brae Neolithic Village, Mainland, Orkney


Interior of  a Skara Brae family "home."


Mid Howe Neolithic Stalled Burial Cairn, Rousay island.
Even more common that Neolithic villages are burial cairns, such as the "stalled" Mid Howe structure pictured above. It is massive compared to most though, with 12 stalls running along a central passage and a tomb that stretches a length of 77 feet.

Many Orkney vistas feature water--from the ample scattering of bright blue lochs inland to harbors and the miles of rocky coastline that meet the north Atlantic and North Sea. Due to the coastal waters, plus salmon farms, most islands are also home to some fishermen.


Stromness harbor, Mainland, Orkney


Creel pots, Tingwall Pier, Mainland, Orkney
Their creels (crab and lobster pots) and weathered wooden fish boxes can been seen stacked up on piers from Pierowall in Rousay, to Tingwall on the Mainland, to Kettletoft on the island of Sanday. We've enjoyed pristinely fresh scallops, mussels, prawns, salmon, haddock, and several dishes that featured the crabs below.

Brown crabs on Pierowall Pier, Westray, Orkney
Called brown crabs (no surprise!) they don't look or taste quite like the Chesapeake bay blue crabs we're so familiar with, but are quite good. The shot was taken just as the Westray island crabbers were transferring them from their boats to tubs headed for the processing plant right across the road from the Pierowall pier.

Petticoat Tails Shortbread

Most of the hotels and B & Bs in the Orkney islands have been setting out shortbread on our tea tray everyday--and we have been happily munching away! So it seems appropriate to conclude with this shortbread adapted from my International Cookie Cookbook. As is typical, it is rich and buttery, yet mild and barely sweet. I like to add a bit of vanilla, even though traditional recipes rarely call for it. Long, slow baking heightens the butter flavor and gives the slices a faint tawny color. The homespun petticoat tails have a slightly tender-crunchy, melt-in-the-mouth texture and, like most shortbreads, go quite well with a cup of tea.

How shortbread baked in a round and cut into wedges came to be named petticoat tails is somewhat of a mystery. Some say it references the hoop skirts of early English court ladies; others think it’s a corruption of the French “petite galettes,” or little cakes. Choice one is more entertaining and fanciful, so I'm leaning in that direction.

1 cup (2 sticks) cool and firm unsalted butter, cut into chunks
7 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Generous 1/4 teaspoon fine table salt
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 300 degrees F. Set out a 10-inch fluted tart pan or 10- to 11-inch pie plate. (If using a pie plate, line it with foil that overhangs 2 inches on opposing sides.) Set out a large ungreased baking sheet.

Combine the butter, all but 1 tablespoon sugar (reserve the 1 tablespoon for garnish), the vanilla, and salt in a large bowl. With a mixer on medium speed, beat about 2 minutes or until very well blended and lightened in color, scraping down the bowl as needed. On low speed, beat in the flour until evenly incorporated. If the mixer motor labors, knead in the last of the flour with your hands. If the dough is dry and crumbly knead in a teaspoon or two of water.

Press the dough evenly into the tart pan or pie plate: If using the tart pan finish the dough edges by pushing it into the fluted indentations; be sure the dough edge is evenly thick all the way around. If using a foil-lined pie plate, press the dough evenly into the bottom and out to the edges until it is evenly thick at the perimeter. With the tines of a fork or the dowel-like side of a wooden spoon handle, press decorative indentations into the dough edge all the way around.

Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sugar evenly over the dough surface. Smooth the dough surface and imbed the sugar by laying a sheet of wax paper over top, then smoothing out and pressing down with your fingertips. With a table knife, carefully cut the dough into quarters, then cut each quarter into 4 or 5 wedges.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the shortbread is fragrant and not quite firm when pressed in the center top. Let the pan cool for about 20 minutes on a wire rack; the shortbread is too tender to handle will hot. When cool, carefully retrace the cuts if necessary. Gently lift out the shortbread wedges and place, slightly separated, on the baking sheet. Return to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes longer, just until the wedges just start to color slightly all over. Transfer to a wire rack; let stand until completely cooled. Keep airtight at room temperature for up to 3 weeks. Freeze airtight for up to 2 months.

Makes 16 or 20 petticoat tails (wedges).


View from Aynhallow Sound of Rousay harbor.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pom Pops--Cooling, Tasty, Lo-Cal

In this post I'm sharing a refreshing snack or dessert recipe from my new co-authored Kindle book, The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook. Yes, as the title suggests, the regime only requires dieting on two days a week. The diet plan, which is also known as the 5-2 or fast diet in Britain, where it is the rage, does work.  My co-author and I, and our husbands have all lost weight on the plan,

I'm proud to tell you that The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook has been getting wonderful reviews on Amazon--in fact, almost every reviewer has given our work a perfect 5 stars! In case you're interested, we are right now in the process of creating a soft-cover edition of the book, which should be available in the fall.

Luscious, Low-Cal Pomegranate Ice Pops

Ruth, my co-author, and I find these pops a tempting sweet treat that not only provides a number of phytonutrients but some very satisfying munching. This makes them a very helpful snack when we feel a little hungry on diet day. One of our objectives was to keep all our recipes simple enough that even those with very busy schedules  could make them evenThey are so easy to make and so convenient when we want a little nosh that we keep them in the freezer all the time. Double the recipe if you like.  By the way, in the book we provide a full nutritional analysis at the end of every recipe.


Tip: Pomegranate juice is quite sweet without the addition of honey, so feel free to omit the honey from the recipe, if desired. In this case, each pop will have only 46 calories.



1 8-oz bottle pure pomegranate juice
2 tsp honey, optional

 1. Thoroughly stir together pomegranate juice and honey in a measuring cup. Pour mixture into 3 3-ounce plastic cups, dividing equally.

2. Cover each cup with a small square of aluminum foil, smoothing it down over top. Cut a tiny slit into foil in center top of each cup. Slide Popsicle sticks into cups, adjusting so they stand upright.

3. Freeze cups, placed upright in freezer, for at least 3 to 4 hours or until frozen solid. 4. To unmold and store pops, run warm water over sides and bottom of a cup for 6 to 8 seconds. Squeeze on cup with one hand while pulling on stick with the other until pop slides out. Place each pop in a small plastic zip-top bag, and return to freezer.

Pops will keep, frozen and well wrapped, for up to 3 weeks.
Makes 3 60-calorie servings, 1 pop each.

For another recipe from the book, a zesty, hearty Mexican Vegetable Soup, go here.








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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lavender Fields Forever, + a Lavender-Infused Limoncello



I've been creating fresh and dried lavender recipes lately, and I'm more smitten than ever with the beauty, fragrance, and haunting, spicy-floral taste of this wonderful herb. Yesterday, I decided to revel in it for a whole day, and took a road trip to the Deep Creek Lavender Farm in rural western Maryland. I'll just say the experience was calming and uplifting--if I'd seen pearly gates there, I'd have been certain I was in heaven! The soothing scent of the flower spires swaying in the breeze, the  constant contented humming of the bees, and the cheerful bird songs combined to treat me to a magical, therapeutic day.


Mostly, I'm going to let the photos here tell you the story. The farm is tucked down a  winding little road in the Appalachian range in Garrett County. (You can see the low, gentle mountain slopes out beyond the lavender fields in the photo at the top.) But luckily for the day tripper in the DC-Baltimore metro area, it's only a few miles off scenic Interstate Route 68 and is easy to find.
 

I was also fortunate to visit near the height of the blooming season. The owner, Anne Davidson, explained that some varieties had already been harvested, but as you can see, there were more than enough lavender plants in full purple display to enchant me as well as the other guests who dropped by.


The farm and gift shop are open on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Anne said she makes a point of carrying as many locally handmade items as possible, including the apple lavender jelly she prepares, and her sister's scent pillows and tote bags (shown in the picture at left above). She has rocking chairs set out on the front porch of the gift barn so you can sit and enjoy the lovely view and sip her lavender-infused lemonade.

 
I was amazed at the number of kinds of lavenders--different colors from deep purple to soft lilac to even white. And different growing habits too, from short, almost straight-stemmed varieties to tall, graceful ones with spikes that seem to sweep out and reach for the sun. One thing they all had in common--they smelled spicy-sweet and attracted bees.




  


Lavender-Infused Limoncello

I took some of my lemon-spiked limoncello for Anne to try and, since it seemed the perfect setting, I placed it out in her lavender patch to take a picture. No, the lavender doesn't lend any color to limoncello, but it has a strong affinity for lemon and definitely adds an enticing flavor note. One of my recipe testers, who loves limoncello, says it's the best she's ever tried!
Lavender Limoncello is best made with fresh lavender flower heads. Just tuck some in along with the lemon peels and let them steep in the alcohol for a week. (It's hard to wait, but at least give your brew five or six days.) Once you've readied the sugar syrup and finished making the liqueur, keep it stashed in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Then it will be ready whenever you're in the mood to treat yourself or guests.

This limoncello recipe is adapted from one I brought back from the Amalfi coast of Italy. The original recipe and more details on how the Italians enjoy the liqueur are here.

5 or 6 well-washed, then dried lemons
7 or 8 fresh lavender flower heads
1/2 liter (about 1 pint) unflavored vodka
300-350 grams (about 1 ½ to 1 2/3 cups) granulated sugar
Generous 1/2 liter (2 to 2 1/2 cups) spring water, use smaller amount for a very potent limoncello

Peel the yellow part of the peels from the lemons using a sharp peeler; be careful to remove only the thin layer of yellow and not the white pith underneath (it’s bitter). Combine the strips of peel, lavender, and the vodka in a large jar or other non-reactive container. Be sure the peels and lavender are covered with vodka. Cover and set aside in a cool spot for at least 1 week and longer for an even more pronounced lemon and lavender flavor.

Combine the sugar and water in a medium nonreactive pot or saucepan. Stir until the sugar is just incorporated over medium high heat. Bring to a boil and let the mixture boil gently, covered and without stirring, for 10 minutes. Let cool. Strain the infused vodka mixture through a sieve into the sugar syrup, stirring just to blend the two; discard the lemon peels and lavender. Transfer the limoncello to a large measuring cup or pitcher. Pour it into sturdy storage bottles; stopper with corks. Store in a cool spot or, better yet, the refrigerator.

Chill the limoncello in a very cold refrigerator or freezer until ice cold before serving. It’s traditional to serve it serve straight up in chilled vodka or shot glasses. Makes about 1 liter (1 quart).

Other recipes you may like: Lavender Buttercream Frosting/Filling for cookies and macaroons.   
Or learn more about lavender and make a Lavender Blackberry Syrup for fruit, berries or ice cream.


 








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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fancy Schmancy Cool as a Cucumber Canapés + Tips on Turning Dishes into Party Food



Today, just because I like food to look appetizing, I’m sharing a few super-simple (really!) presentation tricks and techniques we learned in pastry chef school. If you’re one of the many home cooks who stresses about entertaining and worries that that your food is too plain for guests, these suggestions can help you. They’re also handy if you enjoy being creative or want to entertain with flair on a budget.


Don’t worry! Even though these are tricks from professional chefs and caterers, they are easy enough that anybody can benefit from them. Except for the last suggestion, they require absolutely no training or skill. 
  
>Offer party food in individual servings.
Even the simplest salads, fruits, desserts, or whatever will seem more elegant presented in individual plates or servings than when plunked on the table in big bowls. At a party I just attended the caterer gussied up Kalamata black olives and grape tomatoes merely by threading them together on cocktail skewers; a simple step, but they looked inviting and people ate a lot of them. Notice that my recipe here seems quite fancy-schmancy just because it’s served up in appetizing nibbles. The effect would have been ho-hum if I’d plopped the exact same salmon or herb spread in a dip bowl and set it out with a plate of cuke sticks.

>Give your dish a fancy name. 
Don’t snort, this works! Chefs do it all the time—they call soups bisques or potages and pot roasts daubes so they’ll sound special and worthy of a hefty price.To avoid seeming silly or pompous don’t go overboard like some chefs do though: At several fine dining establishments I’ve visited the dishes took up less space on my plate than their elaborate names took up on the menu! Here I simply call my cucumber rounds “canapés;” the word has an instant cache that “nibbles” or “cocktail snacks” do not.

>Garnish your food with an abundance of herbs, colorful vegetables and edible flowers. 
It takes very almost no time or talent to garnish dishes and make them look like good professionally prepared fare. If you happen to have or can obtain fresh edible flowers or herb blooms for garnishing, they will raise the poshness level even higher. As you can see from the pics here, just adding a few nasturtium or marigold petals and “confetti” in with the fresh dillweed lends a decidedly gourmet look. Recently, I placed my canapés among dishes that were in fact readied by a high-end catering firm. The head caterer actually rushed over and inspected my plate to be sure it was worthy of setting out with his food: “Looks good—very good!” he said sounding quite surprised.

>Invest in a packet of disposable pastry bags and a couple of large open star tips and learn to use them.
It’s amazing how much more pizazz tidy squeezed-out swirls, stars, or rosettes have than little dabs and blobs! Once you get the hang of it, adding toppings, frostings, etc., with a pastry bag and tip is actually much faster and easier, too. And note that even imperfect piping will look prettier than globs dropped from a spoon and smoothed with a knife.

Fancy Schmancy Cool as a Cucumber Cream Cheese Canapés Two Ways

These are crisp and munchable, gluten-free, and lighter and more refreshing than a lot of cocktail fare. (Which makes them ideal for summer and for waist watchers.) The fresh nasturtium blooms are optional, but if you have them in your garden, they’ll add a decidedly chichi touch. Marigold petals and chive blooms, used in the pic at the top, can also be used the same way. For more on garnishing a cheese ball with chive blooms go here.


As pictured, the recipe features a smoked salmon-cream cheese spread. However, you can leave out the fish for very tempting vegetarian version. Another possibility: Make a batch of each so guests have an option. A food processer makes prep effortless.



If you are really leery of using a pastry bag and tip and decoratively piping the cream cheese spread, you can swipe it onto the cucumber slices with a little spreading knife. No, the look will not be quite the same!



1 8-ounce tub “light,” “soft,” Neufchatel cream cheese, at room temperature

3 to 4 tablespoons chopped smoked nova salmon (or lox) to taste, optional

Generous 1/8 teaspoon salt (omit if using the salmon in the recipe)

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives (or substitute tender green onion tops), plus more for garnish

1/2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dillweed, plus small sprigs for garnish

2 to 3 long, thin, tender cucumbers,

Nasturtium bloom petals, some whole, some chopped into a confetti, for optional garnish



In a food processor, process the cream cheese, salmon (if using), salt (add if salmon is omitted), chives, and dillweed until very well blended. Scrape down the bowl sides and process several minutes longer. Refrigerate, covered, at least 1 hour and up to several days, if preferred. Let it warm and soften a bit for easier piping or spreading.


Shortly before serving time or up to two days ahead, score the cucumbers lengthwise with fork tines to create decorative edges, as shown, or, if the peels are tough, peel the cukes leaving only thin lengthwise strips of dark green at intervals, then score them. Cut the cukes crosswise into generous 1/4 to 1/3-inch slices. Lay them out on paper towels. Pipe small portions of the cream cheese mixture onto cucumbers. Cover and refrigerate until needed. At serving time arrange the rounds on a serving platter or plates, and garnish with fresh chives and dillweed sprigs, and nasturtium confetti and petals, if desired. Makes about 35 to 45 canapés. 
 

For more on garnishing with nasturtiums go here. For making a colorful nasturtium-chive vinegar, go here.

 
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Monday, June 2, 2014

Four Good Reasons Every Foodie Should Grow Chives, + a Tempting Chive-Cheddar Cheese Ball



Even if you have never grown a single edible plant; don't have a garden plot; and fervently believe you have a brown thumb, if you enjoy cooking and eating fresh, flavorful produce, you should absolutely, positively try growing some chives. Here are just several good reasons:



Chopped fresh chives enhance most potato soups.





Chives, members of the onion family called Allium schoenoprasum, are the most versatile and rewarding of all culinary herbs. They can add zip to any cooked or uncooked dishes that benefit from a mild onion or green onion flavor. I use my chives from April to November, routinely tossing them into or onto soups, stews, salads, dips, vegetable dishes, and entrees to enhance both taste and appearance. (The recipe for the very tempting potato-herb soup shown at right is posted here.)

Toss chive blooms into almost any salad.

Harvesting chives involves only cutting across the thin, hollow reed-like leaves about an inch above the ground. Because chive blades are ready as is (no peeling or trimming needed), they are much handier for cooking than onions and green onions. Simply wash them under running water, then either snip them into confetti-like bits with kitchen shears or finely chop them crosswise with a sharp knife. (After harvesting, let the leaves grow back to normal height before cutting again.)

2. Chives are hardy, unfussy plants that grow well both in pots and in the ground. Even if you think you have a brown thumb, they are likely to survive, even thrive! If planting your chives in a pot, choose an 8- to 10-inch or larger diameter container; be sure it has adequate drainage holes. Place in any sunny spot--balconies, decks, stoops, bright porches, or window boxes are all suitable locations. Chives do need rich, but slightly sandy soil that won't get waterlogged, and they like at least 6 hours of sun daily to flourish.

The plants are equally happy tucked into a semi-sunny or sunny garden, and since they remain in small inconspicuous clumps they will fit in even in small plots and in communities where vegetable patches aren't allowed. Chives grown in pots need watering whenever the dirt becomes dry; unless the weather is extremely hot and the land arid, those put directly in the ground are usually maintenance free once established. 
Add chive blooms to chive vinegar.

3. Being very hardy perennials, chives will come up and provide a crop year after year with virtually no effort from you whatsoever. (In extremely harsh climates, those grown in containers are  best planted in Styrofoam-based pots that insulate their roots from the bitter cold.) Unlike parsley, which always dies out after two years and has to be replenished, chives can be considered a permanent addition to a kitchen garden. Unlike mints, which can run wild and take over a whole yard, chives are well-mannered and stay right where you put them. If your chives seem to dwindle after a few years, just transfer them to a larger pot with fresh potting soil. Or, divide your garden clump into several plants and space them in fresh soil a bit apart to reinvigorate them and increase their number.

Purple chive bloomlets garnish canapes.


4. One of the great bonuses of growing your own chives is that they produce flowers that are entirely edible and that make enticing garnishes. Each season, usually in May or June, the plants send up buds which open into feathery purple blooms. These are lovely plucked from their stems and tucked into savory and eye-catching bottles of seasoned rice vinegar, as pictured above right; a recipe for herb vinegar (great for making a vinaigrette) is here.

But the flower heads actually contain a group of small bell-shaped bloomlets, and these can be separated and add a charming floral touch and pizazz to all sorts of dishes. Sprinkle them over sliced tomatoes or cucumbers or cooked vegetables such as green beans or carrots. Or for a special occasion, strategically place them on  canapes, pictured above left, or use them to decorate a cheddar-chives cheese ball like the one shown just below here. (By the way, the flowers are the parts that produce the seeds, and, occasionally, if you leave the flowers on the plants instead of harvesting them, the seeds that drop will actually produce new baby chives the next spring.)


Easy Cheddar-Cream Cheese Ball with Fresh Chives
Chive Blooms Garnish a Cheese Ball

This cheese ball is both really simple to make and very, very good. I’ve found that guests keep coming back and nibbling until it’s completely gone—they apparently find the homemade a lot tastier than the usual store-bought! The secret is in using a good-quality sharp cheddar and fresh chives. Dried chives just won’t do.
If you ready the cheese ball with white cheddar and add chives into the mixture, it will be cream-colored and flecked with green inside and out. For a ball like the one pictured here, omit the chives when readying the cheese mixture and use a brightly-hued sharp cheddar. Also, be sure to use regular packages of cream cheese or Nuefchatel, not the softened spread or tub-style product.

Cheddar-Cream Cheese Ball with Fresh Chives
Should you be lucky enough to have some chives blooms at hand, you can create the memorable, eye-catching look shown in the photo here. Just snip the chive bloomlets from the flower heads and press them into the surface of the ball as desired. In case you’re curious, the bell-shaped bloomlets are tender and taste just like the green chopped chive blades.

1 8-ounce package regular cream cheese or Neufchatel cream cheese (not tub-style spread), cut in chunks and at room temperature
4-ounces quality white or yellow extra-sharp cheddar, chopped in 1-inch pieces and at room temperature.
1/2 to 1 teaspoon Sriracha hot chili sauce to taste or 2 or 3 dashes hot pepper sauce, optional
1/8 teaspoon onion powder or onion salt
3 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh chive bloomlets, optional

Combine the cream cheese, cheddar, sriracha or pepper sauce if using, and onion powder in a heavy medium-sized non-reactive saucepan. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly to avoid burning, until the cheeses melt and the mixture is completely smooth; as necessary lower the heat to prevent scorching. Remove from the heat and let stand to cool 10 minutes. Then, if desired, stir in up to 2 tablespoons chives until evenly incorporated.

Scrape out the cheese mixture onto a large sheet of plastic wrap and pull the wrap up smoothly around the cheese to form a rough ball. Refrigerate with the wrap tucked underneath to hold it in place until the cheese ball is chilled and firm enough to shape more fully, at least 1 hour and up to several days. Using a fresh sheet of non-stick spray coated plastic wrap shape the cheese into a smooth, even ball. Roll the ball in chopped chives; if adding chive bloomlets, coat the surface evenly but not heavily with the chopped chives, otherwise coat the ball fairly heavily all over. Press the bloomlets into the top and sides of the ball, as desired. Cover the ball loosely and refrigerate for up to several days, or serve immediately along with regular or gluten-free crackers.  Makes 1 12-ounce cheese ball.
 






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