Friday, August 31, 2012

Naturally Beautiful Cookie Decorating the Simply Sensational Way

I have been waiting quite a while for the right moment to post this story. That’s because my editor at Wiley doesn’t want me to talk much about my upcoming book, Simply Sensational Cookies, until it's actually out there for peeps to buy. It won’t be available for another few weeks (though it can be pre-ordered), so at the moment, I can’t share as much with you as I’d like.  I am able to share the method used to roll out the daisy cookies above and other rolled cookies in the book in my how-to video,  however. You may never roll out cookies with flour ever again!

But yesterday, my very first hot-off-the-presses copy arrived on my doorstep. My hands were shaking as I ripped open the box and took a look. While this might seem an exaggeration, I felt a bit like I did when I first held my newborn son in my arms—thrilled, amazed, exhilarated, gratified, overwhelmed!

Modestly, I have to tell you I think the book is quite beautiful. The photographers, Diane Cu and Todd Porter, created some utterly glorious images, and the designer at Wiley made the most of them when she laid out the book. I’m sorry that I’m not allowed post any of the pics from the book to give you a sneak-peek now. So please note that all the images posted here are ones I've shot myself while creating my recipes; they are NOT ones that will appear in Simply Sensational Cookies.
(However all the cookies shown are in the book.)

 I'm posting these pics to give you an idea of just one of a number of special features in the book. Besides providing the usual cookie decorating options, it serves up an array of easy, enticing alternatives for those who want to minimize or avoid the use of synthetic food dyes, yet still love creating cookie works of art. All the eye-catching garnishes you see here are completely natural, coming from edible flowers like pansies, dianthus, and violets, and herbs like lavender and mint.

Even the frostings and sprinkling sugar shown are tinted with botanical colorants, mainly from fruit juices, edible flowers, and fresh or dried berries. Yes, the garnishing sugar shown gets its color from fairly hard to find woodland violets, but readily available unsprayed purple pansies will work equally well. These pics only hint at what the book decorating chapter features--not only  the traditional expected recipes, but a generous assortment of recipes for "au naturel" colored sugars, homemade sprinkles, buttercreams, and icings to assist those seeking a more healthful, "greener" decorating way.  In many cases, these contribute not only great visual appeal, but a burst of flavor and aroma that artificially colored garnishes never do.

Two events, both health-related, made me decide to reduce my dependence on the little bottles of liquid and paste synthetic food colors I’d always used. Ten years ago my first grandchild was born, followed fairly soon after by my second.  From the time my grandkids could stir a dough and hold a cutter we routinely baked and decorated cookies together, and it made me nervous to see them scarfing down the gaudy, dye-loaded commercial sprinkles and frostings. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest has aptly pointed out, food dyes are added solely for cosmetic reasons, and since there is some scientific evidence that they cause allergic reactions or hyperactivity in certain people, I simply didn’t want to take the risks.

The second major incident was that I personally developed an allergy to the red and orange azo family of dyes typically used in lipsticks. Whenever I applied over-the-counter versions, my lips burned and stung and then the next day they peeled as though I had a bad sunburn—yikes!

 Eventually I found a tolerable substitute product that is petrochemical free, but since most of the F D & C approved red and orange food colors are also petrochemical-based azo formulations, I decided that neither I nor my family should eat them. Better safe than sorry, IMHO, though, I certainly am not trying to make any decisions for you or your own family.

Pictures are often worth a thousand words, so I'm hopeful that these images will convince you that it’s entirely possible to avoid most synthetic food dyes and still turn out decorated cookies that look as good as they taste. (A story on commercial brands of botanical food colors available is here.) Over the past year, I’ve posted a few recipes on my site, including the “au naturel” buttercream frostings shown above on the cupcakes here; the vibrantly hued raspberry buttercream from the book shown at the bottom left here; and the violet decorating sugar here.

But for the full range of  tips, ideas and recipes I've come up with, please do take a peak at the very substantial decorating chapter in Simply Sensational Cookies. I truly think that you'll find it worth the wait.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Too Pretty to Eat (Almost) Nasturtium Salad with Nasturtium Vinaigrette

I’m pleased to tell you I just ate this nasturtium salad for lunch. (It was dressed with a homemade nasturtium vinaigrette.) Yes, it was almost, but not quite, too pretty to eat. And, no, it didn’t fill me up! But it was enormously gratifying in other ways.

I’d been carefully tending and hungrily eyeing the huge pot of nasturtiums by my front steps for some time. But because they seemed a supremely inviting entryway accent, I’ve been putting off harvesting quite a while. (I’ve read that Monet also felt nasturtiums were especially welcoming; he planted them abundantly along the path to his front door.)

Today, I finally took the scissors to my crop, and other than being a little sorry about the heavily pruned (make that shaved) look of the plants, I am glad I did. Eating nasturtium leaves and blooms strewn over a pristinely fresh mesclun is a treat I generally enjoy only at a favorite restaurant and at each summer’s end when I finally decide to turn some of my handsomest suburban yard décor into food.

Besides being delectable, these floral “greens” seems indulgent, whimsical, and oh-so-gourmet. The flavor of both the leaves and blooms is bright, lively, and herbal (yes, nasturtiums are classified as herbs as well as flowers), with delightful hits reminiscent of watercress, radish, and mustard. Note that although nasturtiums taste quite a bit like watercress and both are good sources of vitamins C and A, the two aren’t related.

The aroma of nasturtiums is also noticeably, pleasantly pungent, which etymologists say explains their name: Nasus means nose and tortus means twist or tweak in Latin. The nose-tingling smell was tempting me all during the photo shoot. Immediately after checking to be sure some of the images captured were usable, I sat right down and polished off the plate shown, then fixed myself another (much larger) serving!

 But, of course, the novelty and the asthetics are also a great part of the appeal. Lately I’ve been happily creating a number of "au naturel" cookies, frostings, and garnishes for my Simply Sensational Cookies book that feature fresh edible flowers, fruits and herb blooms and leaves, and I have absolutely loved the natural flavor, color, and charm they can lend. Turning out a nasturtium vinaigrette and salad seems just a savory extension of the exploration already underway.

Tossing nasturtiums and other flowers into salads is “in” right now, but it’s not a new idea, as this recipe translated from an 1864 Turkish cookbook, Turabi Ejendi, reveals: “Put a plate of flowers of the Nasturtium in a salad bowl, with a tablespoonful of chopped chervil; sprinkle over with your fingers half a teaspoonful of salt, two or three tablespoonsful of olive oil, and the juice of a lemon; turn the salad in the bowl with a spoon and a fork until well mixed, and serve." It sounds quite good—and not unlike the salad served up in this post except that the vinaigrette is mixed right in instead of readied separately. That said, modern experts recommend using nasturtiums as accents and garnishes rather than the base of a salad; a whole bowl of them can be too zippy and hard to digest.

 While nasturtiums are now widely popular as ornamentals and edibles in European and North American gardens, they are native to South America and were likely introduced to the rest of the world by the conquistadors. They are tender and shrivel at the first nip in the fall air, so I make sure to shear off all the last leaves and blooms even before I start harvesting the last basil in the garden. Supposedly the unripe nasturtium buds and seeds can be preserved in vinegar and used as a substitute for capers, but I’ve never tried it.

Nasturtium Vinaigrette

The fresh, bright hues of the nasturtium blooms and chives will gradually fade over several hours, so this lightly-flavored vinaigrette will be most colorful if served shortly after being made. However, it will keep well for 4 or 5 days in the refrigerator. In this case, bring it to room temperature (so the olive oil can become fluid again) before serving. 

Use the dressing over mesclun or any other greens you like. Add a few cherry tomatoes or some diced cucumber to your salad, if desired. You can even turn it into a main dish but tucking a hard boiled egg or two along the side.

Tip: Be sure to use an unseasoned (no salt, sugar or herbs added) rice vinegar. I especially like the Nakano brand; it's zesty yet smooth and balances the olive oil nicely.

Tip: It's fine to use mostly leaves in the vinaigrette if you have only a few blooms and need to reserve them for the salad. The dressing just won’t be quite as colorful.

1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar (or use the nasturtium vinegar here)
1/4 cup chopped nasturtium tender leaves (no stems) and blooms
1 to 2 tablespoons snipped or chopped fresh chives
2 to 2 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, to taste
1 teaspoon prepared mustard, preferably Dijon
1/4 teaspoon each sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or a little more to taste

In a deep, medium, non-reactive bowl, whisk together the rice vinegar, nasturtiums, chives, sugar, mustard, salt and pepper. Continue whisking until the salt is completely dissolved. Gradually whisk in the oil until all is incorporated; use 7 tablespoons for a slightly milder dressing. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired. Let the vinaigrette stand a few minutes at room temperature before serving to allow the flavors to mingle. Whisk, stir vigorously, or put in a cruet or jar and shake well to blend before adding to whatever greens, vegetables, and accenting nasturtiums you desire. Add the dressing, toss, and serve immediately or serve individual salad plates and allow diners to drizzle on dressing to taste. Makes 2/3 cup vinaigrette.

You may also want to check out my nasturtium vinegar recipe.
Or enjoy nasturtiums with my refreshing cucumber canapes here.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Too Many Tomatoes--Make This Savory and Easy Freezer Chutney

So, it all started when I spied this large basket of shiny, dead-ripe-red tomatoes with a hand-written sign reading $6 at the local farmers’ market. Wow, a real bargain for that amount—maybe, 6 or 7 pounds, I guesstimated as I stepped up to inspect them more closely.

 But it was the fruity, fresh-from-the-field, sweet-acid smell that reeled me in. Well, that and the knock-out punch delivered by the clerk in the stall: “Taste just as good as the bigger ones,” he said. And as good as the ones that are completely unblemished and a bit more shapely, I silently added, climbing onto my mental soapbox. The common foodie habit of rejecting less beauteous seconds in favor of “premium” produce that simply looks more photogenic has a serious downside: It wastes a lot of wholesome, succulent fruits and vegetables that farmers have spent time, energy, and natural resources to grow.

Once we closed the deal and I was heading home, the tomato fragrance filling the car reminded me that I really needed a tomato sandwich. Which I immediately fixed using only some crusty seeded wheat bread, a generous swipe of mayo and one of the large tomatoes cut in fat slices and sprinkled with a little salt. One tomato down, 21 to go!

With only two of us to eat chopped tomato salads with our dinner, they didn't dwindle quickly. But I dispensed with eight more by toting them to a family supper Saturday night. Sliced, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and garnished with shredded basil leaves, they disappeared right away.

Another tomato sandwich and tomato salads used up a couple more of them yesterday. But today I'm getting serious and taking more drastic steps. The decision on whether to ready a tomato-summer vegetable sauté, or oven-dried tomatoes, or a batch of lively tomato chutney was a difficult one. But I love this chutney, and my summer stash of it, which I depend on, has just run out, so it's my choice. Note that it requires no preserving skills or boiling in a hot water bath. I just stick the finished jars in the freezer or refrigerator and retrieve them as needed.

Spiced Tomato-Plum (or Peach) Chutney

This zesty chutney is a fine dresser-upper for almost any grilled or roasted poultry or meat. I also often combine about 1/2 cup of it along with 2 teaspoons of chili powder or curry powder for a quick, very tempting marinade for chicken or pork headed for the grill. Another option: Stir a tablespoon or two of chutney in to zip up a meat or vegetable sauté.

 In the interesting trivia department: The word chutney comes from the Sanskrit word caṭnī, a term for a class of spicy preparations used as an accompaniment for a main dish.

 Tip: If you have a mortar and pestle, use it to crush the dried spices; otherwise, put them in a small, sturdy plastic bag and crush them until very fine using a kitchen mallet or rolling pin.

Tip: The best way to peel the tomatoes is to plunge them into boiling water for 40 to 60 seconds. Let them drain in a colander until cool enough to handle, then core, peel, and chop.

 1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped (or 3 to 4 tablespoons very coarsely chopped green onions)
 1 1/2 tablespoons peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger root
 1 3-inch long cinnamon stick
 1 teaspoon allspice berries, crushed fairly fine (or 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice)
 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed fine (or scant
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pinch to 1/8 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes, crushed, to taste
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Scant 2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons water
 2 cups pitted and chopped (3/4 inch) unpeeled tart red or yellow plums or peeled under-ripe peaches or nectarines
2 1/2 cups chopped (3/4-inch) peeled tomatoes

Thoroughly stir together the onion, ginger root, cinnamon stick, allspice, black pepper, salt, red pepper flakes, cloves, sugar, vinegar, and water in a medium-sized non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat so mixture boils briskly and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

Add the plums (or peaches); simmer gently for 3 to 4 minutes or until they just begin to soften. Add the tomatoes and continue simmering about 2 to 3 minutes longer, or until the plum and tomato pieces are cooked through but still hold some shape. The liquid should be almost syrupy. (The chutney may still seem somewhat fluid, but will thicken a bit when chilled.)

Let the chutney cool 5 minutes. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Ladle the chutney into well-washed (preferably in boiling water) jars, allowing about 3/4-inch headroom for expansion during freezing. Wipe any drips from jar rims and threads; screw on the lids. Let stand until barely warm. Tighten the lids. Store in the freezer for up to 1 year, or refrigerated for 1 month.

Makes about 3 3/4 cups chutney.

My oven-dried tomato recipe uses up a lot of tomatoes. My summer veggie skillet uses quite a few. For a really novel recipe, check out the tomato jam here.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Waging War on Wordiness: Tips for Writing More Powerful Prose

I’m just back from teaching two 30-minute “Writing Lab” how-to sessions at the BlogHer-2012 conference in New York City. About 5,000 bloggers (mostly women) who focus on topics ranging from parenting, women’s health, and living green, to reviewing Bollywood movies (seriously!) were there to learn and connect with peers. As you can see from the pic (below) of some smiling blogger buddies I met at the Friday night cocktail party, peeps were friendly and having fun.

My assigned workshop topic was to show small groups of attendees easy ways to tighten their prose. This skill can benefit any writer hoping to attract a loyal following, because rambling, wordy prose has a high yawn factor. Most readers who jump in to sample a blog post or print article expect instant gratification. They won’t slog through a mire of words to eke out the substance. Either grab them
instantly, or risk losing them, possibly forever!

Though most of my “students” were already fairly experienced writers (several were editors and former English teachers—yikes!), they seemed to find the tips and exercises very helpful. So, I’ve shared an excerpt from the handout and highlighted some points we covered below. If you think you could benefit from writing “tighter,” read on. (BTW, I started out with an English and Journalism background, then went back and trained as a pastry chef.)

What’s Wrong with Wordiness?

Novelist Elmore Leonard once both answered the question and suggested a brilliant, seemingly simple solution to wordiness in this rather famous quote: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” The gotcha: Cutting the parts "readers skip” requires knowing what bores them and axing not only words, but, sometimes, scenes, plot elements, and even characters.

Fortunately, tightening prose is less tricky for nonfiction wordsmiths. William Zinsser, author of the justly lauded On Writing Well, advises us to, “strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken … a sentence.” Perhaps I ought not say it, but Zinsser's comment is in fact a little wordy!

IMO, he's dead right that pared-down prose is not only easier to read, but more powerful. Just as a strong, concentrated soup stock or broth jolts the taste buds and floods the mouth with enticing flavor, boiled-down, carefully crafted prose jolts the synapses and grips the mind with a riveting succession of vivid, stimulating images and ideas.

Should you need convincing that compact prose is more compelling, here are two examples to compare. I asked attendees to try to boil down the first ridiculously long-winded 65-word passage to 30 or even 20 words. Everyone succeeded; most peeps came up with something similar to example 2. It’s dramatically clearer and stronger, not to mention much more likely to effect the desired change!

Example 1--Wordy: It would be appreciated if you would bring to the attention of your bloggers my dislike of long, rambling sentences and verbose paragraphs in their posts at your earliest convenience. The use of so many words to provide so little information makes it difficult to grasp the facts being presented and, in addition, seems to require too much of my time, not to mention, dulls my interest.

Example 2--Compact: Please immediately tell your bloggers to write more concisely. Their wordiness obscures their messages, wastes my time, and bores me.

As Zinsser suggests, the most effective cure for wordiness is to go through your early drafts word by word and ruthlessly whack away. If you have trouble mustering the necessary objectivity (when I was a newbie writer, I fell in love with every pearl of prose I penned), it may help to let your text sit and get cold for a couple days. This is the checklist I devised to spotlight and correct some of my own word waster habits.

>Tell it with strong verbs, not extra descriptors. (Find & use the clearest, most compelling verb.) 
Wordy: He spoke loudly, then walked away in a huff.
Edited: He shouted, then huffed (or stomped) away.
For a handy list of my favorite culinary action verbs, go here.

 >Eliminate strings of prepositional phrases. (Don’t be lulled by the pleasing cadence of the repetitions.)
Wordy: They sat in silence in a corner in the back of the library.
Edited: They sat silently in a back corner of the library.

 >Root out redundancies. Saying it twice weakens rather than strengthens the message.
Wordy: With carefree nonchalance, he put on his aftershave. (Nonchalance implies carefree.)
Edited: Nonchalantly, he slapped on his aftershave.
Wordy: We were peeved and put out by her demands. (Either peeved or put out will do.)

 > Minimize your use of  “to be” constructions (am, is, was, were, etc.). These not only waste words, but sap the natural power of action verbs. 
 Wordy: I am hoping that the business will be a success. Edited: I hope the business succeeds.

>Choose adjectives and adverbs carefully; use them sparingly. If you’ve used two or three, there’s probably a better, fresher one to be found. Especially avoid general, nonspecific adjectives like wonderful, terrible, and delicious. Instead, choose descriptors that give insight into how something is wonderful or terrible or delicious.
Wordy: On a cold, crisp, snowy morning ... Edited: On a crystalline morning ….
Wordy: What a delightful and wonderful program. Edited: What a thought-provoking (or entertaining, or informative) program.

 >Avoid the passive voice (no action being performed by subject), even when the doer of the deed is unknown or an inanimate object is the doer. 
Passive: The word from the PR staff is that the business will be a success.
Active: The PR staff claims the business will succeed.
Passive: The pot lid was being rattled as steam was released.
Active: Escaping steam rattled the pot lid.     Active: The pot lid rattled.

>Avoid convoluted (especially negative) constructions. Positive statements are usually both shorter and easier to grasp. Tip: Today it's considered perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition if the alternative is a convoluted construction.)
Wordy: It is very unusual to find someone who has never told a deliberate lie.
Edited: Few people have never lied. Edited: Most people lie occasionally.

>Replace standard, overused word-waster phrases with thriftier options. Be especially alert for ones common in everyday speech, such as free gift, unexpected surprise, small speck and the following:
Wordy: At this point in time     Thrifty: Now  Currently  Presently
Wordy: The fact of the matter    Thrifty: The fact
Wordy: For a period of ten days     Thrifty: For ten days

Here is a handy list of wordy phrases to avoid.

 Some other posts you might find helpful or interesting:

 7 Steps to Tastier Food Writing

 Ms. Grammar Lady's Writing Rules

 Five Things to Never Say to a Food Editor

What Two Top Cookbook Editors Say They Are Looking For
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