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Party at the Ranch

August 31, 2009

Last night we celebrated my uncle’s 70th birthday with a big party in their backyard. I say backyard, but their “yard” is a really a large field that looks out to the Crazy Mountain range. Usually there are at least 5 deer grazing in the pasture, and occasionally some cattle make their way down as well. My uncle and aunt invited over some of their close friends from around the area and served a gorgeous dinner outside catered by Mustang Caterers. The same caterer had cooked for Martha Stewart while she was in Yellowstone the previous week!

I wanted to share what was served, because the caterer keeps a strong focus on local foods, and it gave me exposure to what “here” tastes like in Livingston, Montana. For appetizers we had crostini topped with sirloin and basil aioli, mushroom and potato pierogis, and gorgonzola popovers. The dinner was lamb chops with a delightful mint sauce, bison sausage with mustard, wild rice salad (with barley, forbidden rice, brown rice, and wheat berries), roasted vegetables, and a mixed green salad with toasted almonds. Usually lamb chops are served with an offensively neon green mint sauce, but this version was perfectly gelatinous with hints of other cooling herbs like basil and cilantro. The bison sausage was bold and full flavored, without any unnecessary spices or other garnishes. And the roasted vegetables were a rainbow of delight. For dessert my aunt made a blackberry crisp, a Swedish almond cake, and my uncle’s favorite cookie. The blackberry crisp was from the Union Square Café Cookbook, which is written for rhubarb, but my aunt used the sweet and slightly tart fresh berries from around here.

Tomorrow I head back East, back into my familiar food world. I will miss the local beef, which is almost a given on every menu, and the chance to try different game like elk and bison. And of course, I will miss my aunt Vanessa’s cooking.

A Symmetrical Meal

August 25, 2009
Pasta Estatale

Today was a beautiful day out here in Montana. We drove over to Bozeman to run some errands and visit my uncle's office at MSU. When we returned home, my mother and I walked over to the log cabin down the road where the swimming hole is. We sat watching the water flow for a short while before being wrangled back for cocktail hour. I had promised everyone a Bramble that night, and my uncle and dad were already quite "thirsty" by 6:30 pm. Luckily we had bought perfectly ripe blackberries the day before in Livingston.

My aunt then put out a gorgeous Summer vegetable pasta for dinner with a salad of mixed greens and sliced pear. For dessert we had more blackberries with cassis (and ice cream). My uncle made a comment about the symmetry of our meal. We had started with blackberries and were ending with blackberries. It reminded him of how my grandparents started their meals with a mixed drink and ended their meals with a mixed drink. This led to us discussing what a "stinger" is (whiskey and creme de menthe). Which led to my uncle pulling out the best cocktail book I had ever seen (soon to be disclosed). I spent the rest of the night reading the book, as it is quite entertaining. One of the recipes I found was for a Ramos Fizz, which apparently was my grandfather's specialty. I had no idea about this, and I don't think I would have unless we had started tonight's meal with blackberries and ended it the same way.

A Symmetrical Meal

Unpublished
August 25, 2009
Pasta Estatale

Today was a beautiful day out here in Montana. We drove over to Bozeman to run some errands and visit my uncle's office at MSU. When we returned home, my mother and I walked over to the log cabin down the road where the swimming hole is. We sat watching the water flow for a short while before being wrangled back for cocktail hour. I had promised everyone a Bramble that night, and my uncle and dad were already quite "thirsty" by 6:30 pm. Luckily we had bought perfectly ripe blackberries the day before in Livingston.

My aunt then put out a gorgeous Summer vegetable pasta for dinner with a salad of mixed greens and sliced pear. For dessert we had more blackberries with cassis (and ice cream). My uncle made a comment about the symmetry of our meal. We had started with blackberries and were ending with blackberries. It reminded him of how my grandparents started their meals with a mixed drink and ended their meals with a mixed drink. This led to us discussing what a "stinger" is (whiskey and creme de menthe). Which led to my uncle pulling out the best cocktail book I had ever seen (soon to be disclosed). I spent the rest of the night reading the book, as it is quite entertaining. One of the recipes I found was for a Ramos Fizz, which apparently was my grandfather's specialty. I had no idea about this, and I don't think I would have unless we had started tonight's meal with blackberries and ended it the same way.

Montana Food Memoires

August 24, 2009
Toast Skagen by my Aunt Vanessa

I am so lucky to come from a family full of gourmands. Not only are all of the women excellent cooks, because they all are, but the men also appreciate good food and the time that it takes to put together a good meal. Their roll goes beyond sommelier, because they also serve as recipe boxes and the memory-keepers of past meals. I remember listening to my father, uncle, and grandparents reminisce about specific meals they had eaten together in Switzerland more than 30 years prior. Not only did they remember what they ate, but also what wine they drank and who the waiter was.

This week my parents and I are out in Montana visiting my uncle and aunt at their ranch in Livingston. My aunt is Swedish by birth, but has lived here for most of her adult life. She is one of the best cooks that I know, and I think that most of her friends and neighbors would agree. Whenever we come out to Montana to visit their ranch, our mouths begin to water at the thought of sitting at her dining room table. Her blueberry cheesecake is one of the only two cheesecakes I have ever loved. (The other is Autumn Stoschek’s from Eve’s Cidery.) But beyond the special cheesecake, every meal is memorable.

She and my uncle recently took a trip to Sweden with my cousins to see where she had been born and visit the places of her youth. My parents and I are enjoying the wake of their culinary wave in the Baltic sea. This morning she served us cardamom cake, which was perfectly moist and crumbled at the poke of a fork. And for lunch she made Toast Skagen, a simple dish of cold shrimp tossed with mayonnaise, mustard, and dill, which is served on toast sautéed in butter, and then garnished with caviar. The dish was part of a Swedish culinary revamp by Tore Wretman after World War II, when the country saw an influx of foreign foods that threatened the traditional Swedish kitchen. I love cold poached seafood, especially when it is served with a good quality mayonnaise. It was delicious.

As I write this blog, I see her laying out a spread of mushroom pate, pheasant pate, whole wheat crackers and setting out the glasses for Prosecco. Not only am I feeling quite fortunate, but I also feel a certain sense of responsibility to remember these meals and their importance for my family.

My New Friend - Lard

August 23, 2009

Recently I have been cooking with lard. Yes, I, olive oil girl have been slowly incorporating rendered pig fat into my cooking. I truly never thought this day would come. But I guess that’s why they say “never say never”.

I consider myself a “healthy” eater. I eat mainly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, raw nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. I try to buy organic as much as possible, but what is more important to me these days is where my food comes from. Shopping at the Greenmarkets has ironically limited my diet while at the same time expanding it. In other words, I am now limited to eating mainly foods that are local and in season. At the same time, I have expanded what I eat, because there are so many more varieties of fruits and vegetables, and other types of products that I would never be able to find at a supermarket.

That being said, my staple cooking fat has always been olive oil. Sometimes I use ghee and coconut oil, but I usually can do anything I want with olive oil. I use butter in my tart shells. Earlier this Spring I was reading up on Fergus Henderson and thought that I might want to use lard, a cooking fat that I had seen available at the Greenmarket. I remembered Michael Pollan’s writing about lard in "In Defense of Food". His discounting it as an unhealthy saturated fat, and promotion of it as a traditional diet staple jolted my perception of this fat. His words rang true- it is a traditional food that was used by our great grandparents, so why had I been taught to think that it was so evil? It has less saturated fat than butter, and a good percentage of monounsaturated fat. Maybe it is not so harmful after all.

I purchased a small tub of Flying Pig Farm’s leaf lard, thinking that I would use it for a flaky tart crust. What happened instead was the best batch of frijoles that I could have ever imagined producing. It was the lard. I made a second batch of black beans (from Cayuga Pure Organics), and achieved the same result. It is the best cooking fat for homemade Mexican-style beans, and a more traditional fat than olive oil (although Mexico also produces great olive oils now) to use in that preparation.

Tonight I tried my hand at frying in lard, to learn first-hand about its superiority as a frying oil. Apparently, chicken fried in lard is the best thing ever. I decided to do a lighter “Surf and Turf” dish, and fry shrimp in lard to pair with a tomato/scallion salsa. It was delicious. The shrimp had an excellent flavor, and did not come out overly greasy. They say that lard does not taste like anything, but I find it gives off a slightly nuanced flavor which is hard to describe, but easy to distinguish. I will be posting the recipe soon on Kitchen Caravan, but in the meantime, I will be melting more lard in my frying pan.

Summer Cocktail Fridays

August 21, 2009
The Bramble Cocktail

This week's cocktail is The Bramble. I first spotted this drink at The Botanist in London's Sloane Square back in April. I love blackberries, and the idea of a simple combination of berries with gin sounded refreshing and perfect for Kitchen Caravan. I soon noticed the cocktail on bar menus throughout the city, and learned that it was a British staple. While most recipes call for blackberry flavored liquers, Emma and I like it made with fresh muddled berries. The little pulp balls from the blackberries are delightful additions to the drink, but if you prefer a smoother texture, you can strain them out. I should also mention that there are many new gin producers in the U.S., so ask your favorite package store if they carry any local labels. This is enough for 4 drinks:

The Bramble

1 cup blackberries
2 tablespoons agave nectar*
2 limes, halved
4 ounces gin
Sparkling water
Ice
4 jam jars or regular cocktail glasses
Optional garnish: fresh blackberries

Crush the 1 cup blackberries thoroughly and stir in the agave nectar. Leave for at least 30 minutes to macerate and sweeten the juices.
Divide the fruit liquid and pulp among the four glasses and stir in ½ a lime’s worth of juice. Add 1 ounce of gin to each glass, and stir in the ice. Top up with the sparkling water and garnish with the fresh berries, if using.

*If you are unfamiliar with or cannot find agave nectar near you, use 3-4 tablespoons of cane sugar instead.

Summer Cocktail Fridays- The Provence Princess

August 14, 2009
The Provence Princess

It was not hard to find inspiration for this week's cocktail. Everywhere at the markets apricots are blushing at me with their beautiful cheeky pink and orange colors. Lavender is a natural match for this delicate fruit- not only in flavor, but also because of its dreamsky color. And when I think of lavender, I automatically think of Provence. And so it came to be that I had to also include a dash of rosewater (not obligatory). Gin is a natural choice of alcohol for this, as it goes perfectly with apricots, and provides enough edge to make this a bit naughty. If you need to lighten this drink up a bit, add a little bit of soda water.

The Provence Princess
For the Apricot Nectar
8 apricots
2 tablespoons agave nectar
Juice of 1 lime

To Assemble:
2 ounces gin
1 sprig lavender, finely chopped
1 teaspoon rose water
Ice Martini shaker

Prepare the apricot nectar by boiling the apricots for about 5 minutes, or until soft. Drain and remove the pits. Blend the apricots, agave nectar, and lime juice in a mini electric blender into a puree and strain if necessary.
Combine the gin, lavender, rose water, and 2 ounces of apricot nectar in a martini shaker with ice and shake up very well. Strain into 2 separate martini glasses.

Black Bean & Husk Salad

August 11, 2009
Black Bean & Husk Salad

I have been cooking away this whole summer. Sometimes I feel like the kitchen is spinning around me and I am just trying to grab onto something. But of course I am having a great time, because I love what I do. I am a few recipes behind with my posts, but I will try and put everything up this week. The other day I made this Black Bean & Husk Salad, which is really healthy and fresh.

I love most everything that comes in a husk in the Summer time, and wanted to combine them in a dish so that I could eat them together all at once. What I did not expect was for the deep purple and yellow colors to be so rich and surprising, and so different from the usual white, red, and green flag of Summer food.

You can also check out more of my Mexican recipes at my blog Sophia Cooks Mexican.
http://sophiacooksmexican.wordpress.com/

Summer Cocktail Fridays

August 7, 2009
Cucumber Basil Caipirinha

This week's cocktail is the Cucumber Basil Caipirinha. The caipirinha is a traditional drink from Brazil made by grinding limes with sugar. The juice and essential oils from the citrus gives an amazing flavor to the drink, which is substantiated with cachaça (pronounced Ka-Cha-Sah). This week's version is actually made with both lemons and limes, and includes basil, which is really unheard of in Brazil. (This is actually looking a lot like a mojito!) We recommend that it be made with lemon basil rather than Italian basil. I just could not fit all of those minor details in the title. You can of course make this with plain basil and just limes, but lemon basil is so fragrant and beautiful at the markets right now, that I thought that I should insist. It is those small details, like the variety of the herb, or the place where it is grown, that makes food so delicious.

Chin chin!

Julie and Julia

August 5, 2009
Caesar Salad Recipe

This weekend the movie Julie and Julia comes out, tracking the life of Julia Child and the blogger, Julie Powell, who set out to cook every dish in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The movie has gotten everyone cooking Julia Child’s recipes and celebrating how she made French technique accessible for average American cooks, through both her cookbook and television show. When Emma and I set out to start Kitchen Caravan we rented a few of her old episodes to watch the way she hosted the show. I had not watched them since I was a little girl, and had forgotten how down to earth Julia was. Her no-frills, realistic approach let me know it was ok to be myself as the host of the show.

This coming weekend we are going to celebrate the release of the movie with our neighbors by each cooking a dish from her Mastering cookbook bible. I know that they have already made a Soupe de Possoin with striped bass that they caught in the Sound. We are going to make her Plum Clafoutis, since there are more plums than cherries nowadays at the markets.

I will be posting another recipe next week on her birthday, but in the meantime I wanted to do my own tribute to Julia, which was actually inspired quite recently. A few Sundays ago I had the mid-afternoon boredom blues and was watching TV. I came across an old episode of her show with Jacques Pepin. They were putting together a variety of salads, and one of the ones they made was a classic Caesar. I love Caesar Salad and was eager to see if she made her dressing with anchovies and raw egg, but what came was something totally unexpected. Julia had learned how to make the recipe by the daughter of the owner of the restaurant in Tijuana where the dish originated. She made it with romaine hearts tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and a 1-minute egg. They added the staple freshly grated parmesan cheese, but that was it. She refused to put anchovies, capers, cream- all of those things that end up in a Caesar these days. Today I made the dish for myself as she had on the television, and it was gorgeous. I used farm fresh eggs that I had bought yesterday and did the 1 minute boil, which I had never used before. The salad was refreshing, yet ever so slightly rich, and completely delicious. Below is an adaptation of the quantities, as I had to approximate and so will you. I am going to post this in the way Julia writes her recipes, with the ingredients listed as they are incorporated in to the dish.

Julia’s Caesar

1-2 slices of French bread (not baguette)

Cube the bread and toast in a toaster oven (Julia would have sautéed these in butter, but it is better when they sop up the dressing from the salad).

2 Romaine heads
Freshly grated sea salt and black pepper

Discard the outer leaves of the romaine, and separate the remaining leaves from the core. Rinse them well and slice into 2 inch pieces. Transfer to a serving bowl.

2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon

Drizzle in the olive oil and lemon juice and toss the leaves well.

1 egg, boiled for 1 minute

Crack in the 1-minute boiled egg and toss quickly to coat the salad.

Good knob of Parmesan cheese

Grate the cheese over the lettuce and toss one last time.

Makes 4 appetizer portions.