Archive for June, 2010

Strawberry Key-Lime Bars

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

I know! This looks more like a wedge than a bar. It was a corner piece…….

This cool and cooling dessert fulfills TWO functions on my blog today!
First, it represents June (just in the nick of time!) for my Twelve Cookies of Christmas series.
Second, it pays homage to the Mass Farmers Markets Strawberry Dessert Festival, which will run through July 4 at 50 locations throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Chefs in restaurants and markets are getting creative with strawberries and donating a portion of the desserts’ revenues to the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, which supports farmers and markets statewide. 

The closest participating restaurants are in Northampton, about an hour away from me. So I’m contributing to the festivities with a homemade (and home enjoyed) strawberry dessert.

The idea for this particular dessert came from the manufacturers of my go-to key-lime juice, Nellie & Joe’s.
I have to admit that I’m ambivalent about whipped topping (a.k.a. Cool Whip). Part of me loves the idea of eating something that resembles whipped cream (sort of) and getting by with very few calories.
Another part of me thinks about the ingredients and shudders. Basically, as you probably know, the stuff contains corn syrup, chemicals, and air.
I compromise with my principles by not eating it very often. My mother (who likes these bars very much, by the way) taught me to follow a path of moderation whenever possible.
Someday I may try making a key-lime pie with fresh strawberries and eschew the whipped topping.
In warm weather it was very handy to make this no-bake dessert, however.
So here are the bare bars. 

One word of warning: Be careful during the folding process not to hold anything slippery. As I was attempting to take a photo of the folding process, my little pink camera slid right in. SO FAR it appears to have survived. Luckily, the bars are pink so any staining that might have occurred is not discernible.

The Bars
2 cups cut-up strawberries
1/4 cup sugar
1 smidgeon butter
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups crushed graham crackers or pretzels (If you choose to use the pretzels—which give the bars a nice salty crunch—be sure to crush these pesky critters in a food processor; you need to get them as fine as possible. You can also use a Gluten Free Soft Pretzel Baking Mix if you’re allergic to gluten. I may actually have quit a little early!)
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/ 2 cup key-lime juice
8 ounces whipped topping, cold but not frozen
The day before you want to make the bars combine the strawberries and sugar in a saucepan. Let them sit until they juice up (an hour will probably do).
Bring the strawberry mixture to a boil, and stir in the butter. Reduce the heat and simmer until the strawberries are jam-like but not completely solid, stirring from time to time. The time needed will depend on the juiciness of your strawberries and the degree of heat your stove emits on “low”; my fairly firm berries and gas stove took about half an hour.
Remove the mixture from the heat and stir for five minutes, breaking up pieces of strawberry if they remain. Refrigerate the mixture overnight.
The next day line a 9-by-13-inch pan with foil. Melt the butter. Add the sugar and cracker or pretzel crumbs, and press the mixture into the pan. Set aside.
Beat together the strawberry mixture, condensed milk, and key-lime juice. Fold in the whipped topping. Mix thoroughly but gently.
Use a spatula to spread the strawberry mixture on top of the crumb crust. Cover the pan carefully (avoid hitting the top of the bars with your cover!) and freeze the mixture for 6 hours or overnight. 

Let the bars stand at room temperature for 15 minutes before slicing and serving. Makes 24 or more bars, depending on how small you slice them. 

It pains me to admit it, but my young friend Audrey looked much cuter holding the bars than I did.

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To Be Perfectly Frank: 100 Years of Frank Loesser

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Tomorrow will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer and lyricist Frank Loesser.
Loesser was born on June 29, 1910, in New York City and died in 1969. He wrote or co-wrote some of our most singable songs—“On a Slow Boat to China,” “Heart and Soul,” “Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” “Two Sleepy People,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” and about 700 others.
I’ve read a fair amount about Loesser, but I feel as though I don’t really know him. In books he comes across as contradictory. He rejected his family’s love of classical music yet longed to write an American opera. He was moody and quick to anger yet nurturing of his peers. He worked far too many hours yet loved parties. 

The man I can’t quite find in print comes across in his music as brilliant, playful, and intuitive. He knew how to structure a musical number so that it was easy to sing yet constantly surprising. And he knew how to reveal character through song.
His Guys and Dolls, to me the quintessential Broadway musical, illustrates this attention to character. Nathan Detroit’s passive yet sincere love for his longtime fiancée shines through “Sue Me.”
Sky Masterson shares his love of the city and his secret longing for connection to others in “My Time of Day.” Shy-no-more heroine Sarah lets her wild side peal in “If I Were a Bell.” And Miss Adelaide’s language and lifelong dilemma are defined in “Adelaide’s Lament.”
The lament exemplifies one of Loesser’s other strengths—his ability to translate colloquial conversation into music and lyrics. Miss Adelaide’s voice goes up (as mine certainly would!) whenever she gets particularly agitated contemplating her perpetually ALMOST married state: 

When they get on the train for NIAG’RA
She can hear CHURCH bells CHIME.
And the MOOD sublime.
A person can develop la grippe….

I look forward to learning more about Loesser tomorrow evening as I remain glued to the TV (well, actually, I’ll probably save some of the material for later viewing via TiVo) watching Turner Classic Movies’ salute to Loesser.
The lineup will include How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1967; star Robert Morse will co-host the TCM evening!), the 2006 documentary Heart & Soul: The Music of Frank Loesser, and several other films.
Although there are several gems to choose from I wish one of the films were Hollywood Canteen (1944), which features Bette Davis singing (!) the first Loesser song I ever performed, “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old.”
I couldn’t dream of emulating La Bette’s perfect diction. On the other hand, I can of course sing rings around her.
I’ll also learn about Loesser as I rehearse for—you guessed it—MY OWN LOESSER CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE WITH ALICE PARKER! 

This will take place on Saturday, August 21, at the Green Emporium in Colrain, Massachusetts. (See fabulous poster below.)

Alice and I are still planning the program so if readers have a favorite Loesser song they should suggest it now! 
Meanwhile, in tribute to tomorrow’s anniversary here is a special seasonal cocktail. It’s appropriate for two reasons. First, it was invented by my friend Michael Collins, the chef at the Green Emporium.
Second, I MUST have something to hold in my hand when Donald Freeman and I perform “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” another song that shows off Loesser’s way of turning conversation into song.
“Baby” is one of Loesser’s famous overlapping songs, in which characters (in this case “The Wolf” and “The Mouse”) sing complementary music and lyrics over each other.
According to Loesser’s daughter Susan, the composer and his first wife Lynn Garland Loesser performed this song privately many times. She quotes her mother as saying: 

We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of “Baby.” It was our ticket to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act.

(Time Life)

Eventually, Loesser sold the song to MGM to be sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the 1948 film Neptune’s Daughter.
Lynn Loesser was deeply saddened, but “Baby” won her husband his only Academy Award for best song. (As time went by he managed to scoop up a couple of Tonys and a Pulitzer as well.)
On August 21 as Don (doing his best Ricardo Montalban impression) finishes the line, “Beautiful, please don’t hurry,” I’ll pop in with,
“Well, maybe just a half a drink more………….” 

Let’s all raise our glasses to an American original!

Chef Michael Collins informs me that he was inspired to create this cocktail by my late neighbor Florette, who made a mean rhubarb tea.
I have tried it three ways—with rum (as described below) at his restaurant, with a little Grand Marnier at home when I couldn’t find rum, and in “virgin” form with a little pink lemonade for my young friend Audrey. I like it all three ways.
for the base:
6 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups strawberries, cut in half
1/2 lime
1 tablespoon grenadine (optional–for color; I found with really fresh fruit I didn’t necessarily need it)
for the cocktail:
1 cup cocktail base (see above)
2 ounces white rum
lime juice as needed for rimming
sugar as needed for rimming
Bring the water to a boil. Add the sugar and stir. When the sugar has dissolved add the fruit.
Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, until the fruit breaks down. Toward the end of this process add the grenadine if you are using it.
Allow the mixture to cool. Remove the half lime (DO NOT FORGET THIS STEP!), and place the liquid in a blender in batches. Blend it; then strain it, first through a strainer (don’t try to push the fuzz down through the holes) and then through cheesecloth.
Place it in a jar and keep it refrigerated until it is needed.
To make a cocktail (or two): Place the rum in a cocktail shaker, and add ice. Pour in the cup of cocktail base. Shake.
Pour a little lime juice around the rim of 1 large or 2 small glass(es), and dip it/them in sugar so that the sugar coats the rim(s). Strain the drink into the glass(es). 

The drink recipe serves 1 to 2. The base makes about 6 cups.

Audrey drank this cocktail with pink lemonade instead of rum.

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Scooping up a Sofi

Saturday, June 26th, 2010


Dave Wallace of Bittersweet Herb Farm in Shelburne, Massachusetts (two towns away from my home in Hawley!), has a smile on his face this week. His wife Jill and son Miles are feeling pretty perky too, as you can see from the picture above ( which comes courtesy of Bittersweet Herb Farm). 

One of this family company’s classic products, its Spices of India mix, has made it to the finals in the sofi awards.
“Sofi” is an acronym for “specialty outstanding food innovation.” The awards are sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which will hold its annual New York Fancy Food Show beginning tomorrow, June 27, and running through Tuesday the 29th.
“The NASFT is the biggest gourmet food organization in the country, and the Fancy Food Show is the premiere show in the country and perhaps in the world,” Dave told me recently. “It’s a major event.”
I love the Fancy Food Show. What food writer could resist wandering through the Javits Center in New York encountering aisle upon aisle of things to taste? I’ll miss the show this year—although to tell you the truth my feet and my digestive system won’t! It was nice to have a chance to talk to Dave about it.
He explained that his company seldom misses a Fancy Food Show. Asked what he gets out of exhibiting there, he mused, “You get some orders. You don’t get a lot of orders.
“You get a lot of contacts. Everybody in the food industry goes there. We come home with probably about 200 leads that we spend pretty much the rest of the year following up on.”
For this year’s sofis about 2000 products were submitted by food companies throughout the world. Bittersweet’s spice mix is one of four finalists in the category “appetizer, antipasto, salsa, or dip.” 

At the Food Show the NASFT will ask 300 buyers to rate the finalists. The grand-prize winners will be announced at a reception Monday evening. 

Even if Bittersweet’s spice mix doesn’t get first prize in its category, Dave explained, he and his family will still be winners.
“You’re awarded a silver medal just by being a finalist. It is a big deal. We talk about waiting till the show to find if we won but in reality we’ve already won,” he noted. “To be among such a select group of products is definitely an honor.”
Beyond the honor, Dave observed that he is already gaining attention and orders from buyers because of his silver medal.
Perhaps ironically, the Spices of India mix is not a new product. “Actually it’s one of our original seasonings, which would make it about 27 years old,” said Dave. “I’ve loved Indian food since as long as I can remember.”
He didn’t necessarily expect the spice mix to win, he admitted. “Indian food or Indian cuisine seems to be the trend of the year. I noticed that there were several products with Indian flair [in the finals]. We just happened to enter the right product at the right time.”
Dave said that he had actually expected one of Bittersweet’s newer products to be nominated for a sofi—perhaps its wild blueberry and limoncello jam (excellent in crepes or tarts) or its new southwest seasoning mix, which the Wallaces like to combine with mushrooms, onions, vegetable sausage, and cheese for a southwest egg scramble.
“Life would be much easier if I had a crystal ball,” Dave chuckled.
Asked about his favorite way to use the Spices of India mix, he responded, “I make a sauce, a very quick and easy sauce with unsweetened coconut milk—an eight-ounce can—and two tablespoons of the Spices of India (or to taste). I heat it up and add a little salt and pepper. You can use it as a sauce on just about anything: fish, chicken, lamb vegetables.
“Or I just add a pinch to my tuna salad, egg salad, chicken salad.”
He explained that the mixture is popular because it is spicy but not necessarily hot.
“We do a lot of these consumer shows. People are afraid to try it because they’ve had a negative experience with Indian spices being too hot. They’re surprised at how mild it is, how flavorful it is.”
The judges in New York will try the spice mixture in one of the recipes featured on the label, probably the first recipe given, which makes a creamy, flavorful cheese spread. Dave gave me a jar of the spices so I made the spread for friends recently. Everyone loved it. 

The mayonnaise made the cream cheese a little less heavy, and the spice mix really brought depth to the cheese. The recipe appears below.

Bittersweet Herb Farm Spread of India
1 cup cream cheese, softened
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Spices of India mix
Blend the cream cheese and mayonnaise and stir in the spices.
Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. (A little longer is a little better!) 

Serve with crackers, pita chips, or vegetables. Makes a little less than 2 cups of spread.

Courtesy of the NASFT. Photography by Mark Ferri.

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World Cup Fruit Cup

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

My friend Alice Little Grevet, who lives in Paris (lucky Alice!), came up with this recipe title.
Alice is one of those people who frequently paste the word “Gooooooooaaaaaal!!!” on their Facebook pages at this time of year.
Like many people living in the United States, I am following the World Cup only peripherally —primarily by watching British humorist John Oliver’s commentary on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
I’m impressed (but not enough to watch an entire match) that the U.S. team actually appears to be holding its own in the competition—so far, at any rate—but not in any arrogant fashion.
Rooting for the U.S. in the World Cup is rather like rooting for the Red Sox in the good old days when they lost all the time. It’s genteel. 

My fruit cup is also relatively genteel, I hope. It is the only international fruit cup recipe I have, given to me years and years ago by a Spanish woman living in France. 

I’ve written here before about Paris en Films, the film festival organized by my honorary godmother, Dagny Johnson. During my first summer working with the festival we were housed in a one-bedroom apartment on the Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris.
Despite its relative paucity of rooms the apartment was quite grand, with panels of mirrors on the walls that made it appear even grander. We rented it from a Spanish nobleman. Our landlord owned a building in Paris so that he could stay there from time to time and watch marathon features of pornographic films, which were banned in Franco’s Spain.
I found this bizarre. I guess it’s no odder than keeping an apartment in Paris so one can eat the food or go to the museums or look at the gorgeous city, all of which sound perfectly rational to me. But I was a very naïve teenager.
Through this nobleman Dagny found our cook/housekeeper, Nieves Garcia. Madame Garcia’s husband worked at the Spanish Embassy. 

Madame Garcia was a perky suicide blonde who seemed to have a perpetual smile on her face. She wasn’t actually a terrific cook (she had only about four dishes in the repertoire she served our guests), but she had an aura about her that defied anyone to criticize her culinary talents.

My favorite among Madame Garcia’s kitchen creations was her signature fruit cup.
She used whatever fruit was at hand and gave it a little extra zip with sugar, orange juice, and anise liqueur.
In honor of Madame Garcia and of soccer players everywhere I offer her recipe. I tried to find international fruits and juices when I tested it this week. Unfortunately, the only exotic fruits available at my local general store were bananas.
Feel free to add any international fruits you can find—and perhaps to substitute some Brazilian cashew juice (if you can find that) for the o.j.
Although you may of course use another liqueur in place of the anise I counsel against it. The licorice taste contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the fruit and really makes this dish. 

Your guests may well yell “Gooooooooaaaaaal!!!” as they eat.

Madame Garcia’s Spanish Parisian Fruit Cup
6 cups assorted fruit
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
2 tablespoons orange juice (or to taste)
2 tablespoons anise liqueur (or to taste)
Place the fruit in a pretty bowl. Measure out the remaining ingredients in the order in which they appear above. 

Allow the fruit to marinate for at least 15 minutes. Serves 6.

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For Rhubarb Lovers ONLY!

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

I know I don’t usually publish posts two days in a row. I do realize, dear readers, that you have OTHER THINGS TO DO than read about my cooking.
I’m running out of time to celebrate everything I need to by July 4, however, so I’m afraid I’m back today with another rhubarb recipe.
Actually, I was a little hesitant to try this one. It involves … grilling.
I’m not generally a sexist, but there are certain things I’d just rather have men do. Change batteries on high smoke alarms (thank you, David!). Fasten the hose to the faucet outside so the water doesn’t gush out (thank you, Dennis!). GRILL.
Last night was hot, however, and no men were in sight. So I pulled out the grill and the charcoal and eventually got a fire going. My mother, Truffle, and I enjoyed a marinated flank steak.
And … grilled rhubarb!
Ann Brauer, a talented quilt artist in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, suggested I try tossing my favorite stalk on the grill.
I was skeptical. I have been known to lose pieces of chicken through the slots of the grill. I had a feeling I would end up with more rhubarb in the fire than on top of it.
Ann told me that she had grilled her rhubarb on foil, however, which made the project much more doable.
The grilling is a teensy bit tricky anyway. As I state in the recipe below, one wants the rhubarb to become slightly soft but not mushy. The photo at the bottom of this post actually depicts my first batch, which was slightly underdone; you can still see sugar adhering to the stalks. By the time we finished the final batch we were so hungry we ate the darn things without photographing them, however.
Warning: I know I’ve said that several of my rhubarb recipes will appeal to people who are not rhubarb fans.
This is NOT one of those recipes. If you are a lover of rhubarb, however, you will be enamored of the contrast between the light sugary crust and the deep, tart, rhubarby inside of the grilled stalks.
My mother and I were very, very happy. Truffle even ate a couple of pieces. (She’s a dog with excellent taste.)
Grilled Rhubarb
I apologize for the vague proportions in this recipe! My mother and I ate about 4 pieces of rhubarb each, but people with bigger appetites would probably eat many more. So I leave the decisions to you…….
rhubarb to taste–washed, trimmed, and cut into 3-inch pieces
sugar as needed
Rinse the rhubarb pieces well and barely drain them. Leave a little water adhering to them so that the sugar will stick to them.
Pour sugar into a flat bowl, and roll the pieces of rhubarb in it.
Grill on foil over a not-too-hot grill, turning from time to time, until the sugar melts and the rhubarb starts to soften but doesn’t completely lose its texture. On my grill this took about 15 minutes, but I am NOT a reliable griller. Keep an eye on your rhubarb and pay no attention to me! 

Remove and serve.

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