Friday, July 29, 2011

Meet My Kitchenlane "Friends and Neighbors"

When I chose “kitchenlane” as my website name I had a reason: Our house is at the end of a quiet tree-lined street and tucked right into a woods. While the neighborhood is actually suburban, in the back yard it feels like we’re right out in the country. The view of the woods from the big kitchen window we added over the sink (pictured at the very bottom) lifts my spirits whenever I’m stuck inside testing recipes all day.

Yes, the setting is almost as idyllic as it sounds, and I count myself very lucky. But living here does means having to share the territory with a host of woodland and garden “friends.”

Many, like the butterflies, birds, and even bumblebees pictured, are a joy to have as neighbors. Others, like innocent-looking Bambi and his buddies—not so much. The deer here are voracious and brazen; they come right up to the deck and would eat my hostas to the ground if they weren’t kept sprayed with “Deer Off.”

Some of the critters are so shy and stealthy we’ve never gotten a single picture: A fox family lives behind the house, but they always sneak past before we can grab the camera. We rarely see the great barred owls at all, but hear them “hoot-hoot, hoo-hoo” back and forth from the treetops every evening at dust.

The owl pictured above was perched right outside the den and is the only one ever to come close enough to photograph! People say owls appear wise, but this magnificent creature seems mysterious and dignified, too.

Here are just some of the other locals in my neighborhood. The bluebirds come back every spring and some years nest in one of the boxes we put up in the yard.

The strange critter on the flower is called a hummingbird moth. All the images were captured by the talented resident nature photographer, my hubby. I hope you’ll sit back and spend a few relaxing minutes enjoying them.

I can often see the bluebirds from my kitchen window (shown below). When I redid my kitchen I made the window twice as large as it had been before. For the pics and story about my kitchen make-over click here.
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's Up with Faux Food Soaps--Do YOU Wanna Lather Up with a Fried Egg Bar?

A peculiar culinary-related trend is happening now--soaps shaped, scented, and even flavored to look exactly like various foods. I'm not talking soaps that mimic lemons, or oranges or even bananas--they've been around forever!

I'm taking ones that are dead ringers for edibles like pastries--yes those pictured at the top are all actually soaps--or popsicles (shown right), egg and bacon (bottom of page), buttered popcorn, or even roast chicken! (The pastries, chicken and many more offerings are available from the Soapopotamus website; fried egg and bacon are on Etsy here.)

These food-themed bath bars now seem to be going more mainstream, turning up not only in quirky out-of-the-way boutiques but in ordinary shopping centers. I first came upon a fruit soap kiosk with every kind of fruit known to man (carambola, lychees, passion fruits, mangosteens, etc.,) several years ago in my local mall. More recently, in the same mall I discovered what I first thought was a cute new bakery or cheese shop (two pics below), but once inside realized the goodies were only soaps. Interestingly, they were pricey--in the same range as real wedges of fine cheese!

Frankly, I don't quite get the faux food soap phenomenon. Yes, of course a little basket of cleverly crafted lime-shaped soaps makes a nice gift for a hostess or pleasant indulgence for oneself. I can even imagine some folks enjoying a calorie-free version of a pretty cupcake or forbidden glazed doughnut, although I don't think I'd want to bathe with them. Worse yet, I know they'd make me want to rush out and scarf down the real thing!

But I personally can't picture anybody I know wanting to lather up with a roast chicken or fried egg! (Thank goodness!)

How about you? Do faux food soaps intrigue you or seem just weird? Would washing with petit fours or bacon strips fulfill some secret fantasy or satisfy a deep craving? Do take time to comment--I'd really like to know!

If you're now in the mood for real popsicles, click here.Or for real cupcakes click here.

Or perhaps, you'd like to make a faux food. This edible treat looks like bread and butter but it's not!
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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Secrets to a Fabulously Refreshing Summer Carrot Soup--Fresh Dill & Chives

I grew up in an herbless household. Except for crème de menthe in our liquor cabinet and lavender sachets in my mother’s dresser drawers, I never encountered any herbs. I didn't realize that parsley was an edible garnish until I was a young teenager! And I was grown before I realized that herbs could be an easy, effective way to banish the blands when cooking.

My first inkling of their culinary power came when I tried a baked potato with sour cream and chives in a restaurant. The bursts of clean, vibrant, refined onion flavor from the little flecks wowed me—and still do! The second revelation occurred when my family dropped in on a cousin making dill pickles. I suddenly understood that those feathery dillweed sprigs (note the bottom left of the pic above at right) were actually responsible for the fresh, cleansing aroma I’d somehow thought came from the cucumbers themselves!

The knowledge intrigued me and eventually helped spark an exploration of culinary herbs that continues to this day. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of enjoyable hours learning to cook and bake with both well-known herbs like thyme, basil, and oregano and recently with less familiar ones like lavender (lavender frosting recipe is here) and chamomile (chamomile shortbread here). (For a grapefruit-tarragon sorbet recipe from my recent Eating Well story on using herbs to boost the appeal of healthful dishes, click here.)
Particularly in hot weather, I find myself snipping cooling dill and zippy chives and tossing them into slaws, pasta and potato salads, and, of course, sliced cucumbers. But I discovered that dillweed pairs beautifully with another vegetable it's not usually associated with--carrots! In fact, dillweed and carrots are such an amazing match, that even though I'm normally not very enthused about carrot soups, this is one of my all-time favorite summer recipes.

Cooling Carrot Soup with Dill and Chives

This soup is surprisingly appealing even to those who are not normally great fans of carrots. (I and both of my regular testers find it addictive!) The secret is in infusing both the broth and the yogurt garnish with lots of flavor using an abundance of dillweed and chives. The technique is not only effective but easy. The soup is also very healthful.

 Do not even think about using dried herbs here, and be as generous with the fresh ones as your supply allows. The soup calls for “handfuls” of herbs; if you're relying on ones from the grocery store instead of the garden or farmers’ market, you’ll need at least a 2- to 3-ounce packet. Those added to the broth should not be chopped first, so they can be readily fished out with a fork later.

4 cups (or 1 32-ounce box) reduced-sodium chicken broth
4 cups (about 1 pound) ready-to-use baby carrots
1 medium thin-skinned white or Red Bliss potato, scrubbed and quartered
1 large handful whole fresh dillweed sprigs (including stems), plus 2 tablespoons chopped dillweed leaves (fine leaves only) for yogurt garnish
1 small handful whole fresh chives, plus 1 tablespoon finely chopped for yogurt garnish
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2/3 cup regular or low-fat plain (unflavored) yogurt

Combine the chicken broth, carrots, and potato in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Lay the whole herbs over the vegetables and bring the mixture to a boil. Adjust the heat so the broth boils gently and cook, uncovered, for 13 to 15 minutes or until the carrots and potato are tender when pierced with a fork. Don’t undercook or the soup will not be as smooth as it should.

Set aside until cooled slightly. Using a fork, lift off and discard all the herbs. Using a slotted spoon, remove the carrots to a food processor or blender. When the potato is cool enough to handle, peel off and discard the skin. Add the potato, butter, then enough broth from the saucepan to the vegetables to facilitate processing or blending. Process or blend until completely smooth, stopping and scraping down the sides as needed; a processor will take longer and the soup will not be quite as smooth. Stir the carrot mixture back into the saucepan. Cool slightly, then taste and add salt and pepper as desired.

Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours and up to 48 hours before serving. If desired, thin the soup with a little water before serving. To serve, add several teaspoons of the herbed yogurt to the center top of each bowl of soup. Partially swirl in the mixture. If desired, garnish servings with small sprigs of dillweed, and serve.

Herbed yogurt garnish: Stir together the yogurt, 2 tablespoons finely chopped dillweed, and 1 tablespoon finely chopped chives in a small bowl. Taste and add salt as desired. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours (so the herbs can infuse the yogurt) and up to 48 hours, if desired. Makes 1 quart soup, 6 to 8 servings.
Another herbed soup (left below) you might enjoy: Cream of Green Herb-Potato Soup. Or go in another directions (below right) with Pumpkin-Tomato Bisque. To try a main dish recipe featuring dillweed, check out my meal-in-a-bowl fresh salmon chowder. But serve these warm.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Random Stuff I Ate at the Fancy Food Show

If you're one who believes in limiting the number of different foods in the stomach at once, don't ever go to the Fancy Food Show. The current summer event, (open to the trade only) now in progress the Washington, DC, convention center, is showing off over 180,000 specialty food products--yikes! And in a 4-hour tasting blitzkrieg yesterday, I'm certain I tried over half of them.

Here, in mainly random order (my fave is last), are some of my most memorable samplings:

Bruce Cost's ginger ale I enjoyed Bruce Cost's well-written ginger cookbook years ago, so had to stop and say hello when I discovered him handing out samples of his own brand of ginger ale. Yes, I liked his zingy, fresh-tasing ginger ale as much as his book.

Ube ice cream--A purple-hued ice cream (bottom left in photo below) readied with colorful Asian ube yam (a tuber technically known as dioscorea alata), this Philippine favorite excited the two samplers ahead of me in line.

However, my reaction, and that of the fellow served after me was.... shrug. It wasn't bad, but it didn't really have much taste. (Maybe I was suffering taste bud fatigue from the fairly incendiary bloody mary mix I'd tried a few minutes before!)

Fran's Chocolates milk-chocolate-covered caramel with Halen Mon smoked sea salt--I'm not always thrilled with sea salt on my caramels, but, as usual, Fran's take on this still trendy confection was to die for. As she pointed out, the choice of salt can make a difference. The highly touted Halen Mon North Wales smoked salt provided not only a hint of interesting flavor and aroma, but the crystals are softer on the teeth and add rather than detract from the silky candy texture.

Skillet Bacon Spread--Last month at a food fair I tried bacon-flavored pralines; yesterday I took on little canapes made from a ready-to-use bacon spread pictured at the top left. (Obviously bacon anything is still hot these days.) Frankly, I preferred plain old "regular" pralines, but the spread is very good. It's flavor is pleasantly "bacony," in the same way ham spread is "hammy;" in fact it could probably be subbed for ham spread in many recipes. A container of this stuff would make a fine gift for a bacon lover or anybody who likes to make and serve interesting, yet fuss-free cocktail snacks.

Peppadew Sweet Piquante Peppers--Discovered growing wild in South Africa, these attractive yellow and red peppers would make a nice addition to a pizza, submarine sandwich or zesty soup or dip.
The yellowish one has a distinctive yet mild sweet pepper flavor. The red one has a bit of heat, though tears didn't come to my eyes. They're sold jarred, whole and in relish form, and as a bottled hot pepper sauce. If you're a capsicum fan, you might want to try 'em.

Homemade pasta dish sample from Domenica Marchetti's, Glorious Pasta of Italy--This simple, flavorful entree was prepared by the author herself, who also signed some copies that her publisher was generously giving away. Luckily, I arrived at the booth in time to get one of the last two my friend had. Thank you Domenica and thank you Chronicle for a beautiful cookbook!

Rick Bayless' seasoning mixes--Actually, Rick wasn't serving a thing by the time I arrived--the last smidge had been dispensed and the dishes washed and dried. But we've known each other a good while, so I had to stop and chat a minute. Yes, I know the pic is so blurry you can't tell that he's holding a packet of his prized taco seasoning. Perhaps I'd have done better if he'd fed me!

Calendar Islands lobster stew-- I've saved my absolute fave for last. A new product by a brand new company formed by 37 Maine lobstermen, this hearty, savory stew is better than a lot of homemade versions. In fact, it's terrific.

The company is modeled after the Ocean Spray cranberry growers' cooperative, and has partnered with Stonewall Kitchens, where the recipe development was done. Oh, would I like a bowl of it right now.
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Friday, July 8, 2011

A Love Affair with Lavender, Plus a Lovely Lemon-Fresh Lavender Buttercream Frosting

I’ve grown lavender in my garden for decades. I always liked the graceful look of its purple spires, and I adored its refreshing spicy fragrance that wafted up across the yard. (The pic at right is from my garden; the pic at the top and just below left are from  Deep Creek Lavender Farm in western Maryland.)

 I once thought lavender was just ornamental. I did cut some lavender blooms to make a fragrant, summery bouquet. But, unlike the rest of my herbs, which I'm constantly snipping for the kitchen, my lavender was mostly sitting there looking pretty. This was not a bad thing, but, boy, was I missing out!

Over the past few years that's all changed. I've discovered the charms of this beautiful herb in all kinds of dishes, and frankly I've fallen hopelessly in love. In case you're skeptical about its potential as a recipe ingredient, let me assure you that it won't call to mind soap or cologne. Like rosemary or thyme, culinary varieties of lavender just adds a fresh, distinctive herbal note, that tasters often can't identify, but very much enjoy.

Most of the best culinary lavenders are in the lavandula angustifolia family, sometimes called "English" lavenders even though they are not necessarily English!  If you are buying lavender plants that you plan to cook with as well as admire in the garden, some of the most appealing ones include Folgate, Beuna Vista, Munsted, Hidcote, Maillet, and Jean Davis (this last one is pink!), plus the popular lavandin hybrid lavender, Provence. Though the plants are pretty, skip any lavenders labeled "fern-leaf" (lavandula multifida), or "tooth-leaf" (lavandula denta), or "Spanish" (lavandula stoechas) for cooking, as their flavor may be overly strong and harsh and even camphorous. That's a stoechas lavender at right below--note that the petals form a colorful topknot.

I've found that lavender has a great affinity to fresh summer berries and fruit, especially blackberries and peaches. In fact, I created a peach-berry compote that's featured in  Eating Well magazine. I routinely add a couple flower heads to infuse cooked fruit compotes, sorbet mixtures such as the one here, and even jams and jellies. (I fish out and discard the lavender once the cooking is done.)

Lavender is also delightful in certain baked goods. I've successfully tried it in muffins, cakes, and cookies. And it's wonderful in the buttercream recipe featured below. Notice that in one of the pics below that I decorated the cookie tops with tiny fresh lavender blooms. They not only add natural color, but provide a pleasing little zing of extra lavender flavor.

Lemon-Fresh  Lavender Buttercream Frosting

I love this frosting! Yes, the lemony flavor is enticing, but the added hint of lavender spiciness propels the taste and aroma into the extraordinary range. Be sure to use only fresh, culinary lavender in this recipe; dried lavender is coarse in texture and will mar the smoothness of the buttercream.

If you have a lot of lavender, pluck enough tiny purple blooms from the bracts to yield the minimum  called for. If your supply of flowers is limited, use both the tiny blooms and the bracts holding them (but not the stems). Then process in the food processor extra-thoroughly.

Use the buttercream to pipe into rosettes or to swirl over cupcakes or cookies with a table knife. Or tuck the frostings between cookies for a sumptuous sandwich filling. It's best to make the frosting in advance and refrigerate, then bring it back to room temperature when you want to use it. The flavor actually seems to intensify and "bloom" during storage.

Tip: To be sure that the lavender and lemon zest integrate smoothly, always process them with the powdered sugar very thoroughly as directed. There may still be very fine flecks of them in the finished frosting.

Tip: For a frosting with a light lavender color you could add a drop or two of red and blue food colors. I prefer botanically based food dyes, as the usual petrochemical ones can cause allergic reactions in some people (including me!).
3 cups powdered sugar, plus more if needed
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon minced fresh culinary lavender blooms or lavender flower heads
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool, firm, and cut into pats
1 to 2 1/2 tablespoons orange juice, or as needed

In a food processor combine the sugar, zest, and lavender. Process until the zest and lavender are very finely ground and the mixture is thoroughly blended, about 4 minutes; for the smoothest frosting texture don’t under-process. As necessary, scrape down the bowl sides and bottom, then continue. Add the butter and process in pulses until just smoothly cut in and no bits remain; the frosting should not be coming together in a mass.

With the motor running, gradually add juice through the feed tube until the desired piping or spreading consistency desired; remember that the frosting will stiffen slightly during standing. If necessary adjust the frosting consistency, adding powdered sugar to stiffen or juice to thin it. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate several days; let come back to cool room temperature before using. (It actually improves upon storage.)

To use the frosting: Add small dollops to the center top of cookies or larger dollops to cupcakes, then swirl attractively with a knife. Or, spoon it into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch or larger open star tip. Pipe 1- to 1 1/2-inch diameter frosting rosettes onto cookies and large rosettes onto cupcakes.) Or, using a knife, spread the frosting between cookies for cookie sandwiches.

If desired, add fresh lavender flowers or fine shreds of fresh lemon zest on cookie or cupcake tops for garnish.

Makes enough frosting to cover about 30 2 1/2-inch cookies and a dozen cupcakes.

Another recipe you may enjoy--a lavender-blackberry syrup for sweetening a fruit compote, brightening lemonade, or adding to a cocktail.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Country Gardens Photo Shoot 2--Welcome to My Garden

If you've been following along with my blog posts, you know that Country Gardens magazine was shooting a summer garden cookie story at my house this past week.

To say that I was thrilled that they asked to come visit is an understatement! And I was even more thrilled with the pics that photographer Bob Stefko took--he's a genius! (I got to look at them as they were saved on his computer.)

Somehow, he made my garden seem amazingly picturesque and even discovered pretty spots I hadn't noticed before. I also thought my cookies looked spectacular. (I posted about taking some of the cookies to a family birthday party last week here.)

If there is any downside to the shoot, it's that gardening magazines work at least a year ahead. Which means that my recipes and the images selected from the hundreds Bob took won't appear for another year! The art director, Nick Crow, admitted that it was going to be very hard to choose.

In the meantime, here are some pics my hubby took that won't be featured in the magazine. I love looking at them and hope you do too. (If you missed pics of the kitchen part of the shoot, click here.)
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Friday, July 1, 2011

Behind the Scenes of a Magazine Photo Shoot

I promised I would give you an update on the photo shoot taking place this week. The art director for Country Gardens magazine, Nick Crow, said it was fine to mention the publication name and give you a peek at what was happening today.  (To see how the pics came out when the magazine was published in Spring, 2012, go here.)

As the top pic suggests, the photographer, Bob Stefko, roamed around the garden, shooting dozens of pics both in the shady back yard and the sunny front.

He then came inside and we shot a cookie making how-to in the kitchen. That's Nick, watching Bob take an overhead shot. The ladder wasn't quite tall enough, so Bob just climbed up on the counter! Anything to get the image the director wanted, he said!

Since my cookie story is for a garden magazine, I featured flowers. Maybe you guessed from the lavender spires at the side in the pic (right) that I was piping a lavender buttercream frosting. The crew liked it a lot, by the way!

I was so busy getting ready, I haven't posted for a couple days. So I thought I'd share these with you right away. I'll be putting up some more pics and giving more details in a couple days.

In the meantime, if you'd like to see more of the garden as I was preparing for the shoot, check out my post here.

For some other pretty pics taken during and after the Country Gardens Magazine photo shoot, go here.
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