Cream of White Asparagus Soup

White Cream of Asparagus Soup

Last year about this time when my husband and I were preparing for our trip to Europe, I busied myself with finding recipes that might be typical of the region we would be in so I could try them at home. I was able to share a few of these before we left, but neglected to share the Cream of White Asparagus Soup I made.

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Strawberry Key Lime Cream Cheese Cake

Strawberry Key Lime Cream Cheese Cake

At some point in our young lives, my sister made a cake.  This stands out because my sister doesn’t bake.  Food is a necessity to her, lucky woman, unless we’re talking about salsa or hot sauce.  Okay, apples, popcorn…she’s a grazer.  She’s petite and lean — fit.  And she’s more beautiful than she’s ever been.  Don’t misunderstand. She’s always been a lovely woman (outside of her cranky junior high phase), but at this point in her life she is truly lovely.  Is it the recent empty nest?  Perhaps the East Coast climate?  Or is it that she is blissfully free of those of us on the West Coast where she truly belongs?

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Chicken Wrap with Spicy Greens

I’ve been working on our patio for a few months now trying to make it more functional and enjoyable.  It’s a narrow area that wraps along two sides of our house and much different than the half-acre of hillside we tended at our former house.  At first, the idea of having so much less to manage outside was attractive because we were busy with our jobs and moving closer to the ocean and a beautiful seaside community that would inspire us to get out more and enjoy weekends full of sun and fun.  But I’m a gardener — I always have been.  And as much as the weather is often quite gorgeous here, I’m content to spend time outside digging in the dirt.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t been very easy for the past few years.

A former owner had planters installed on the patio and made less than smart choices about what was planted in them, so now, several are completely root bound.  Old flagstone capping has loosened from the planter walls, much of it cracked or broken completely.  The fence, although beloved by my cats for its great scratching post qualities, was more a termite high rise.  Tearing it down took little thought.

I’ve always kept pots of annuals and herbs, and for the first time two years ago, began growing tomatoes in pots.  About a year ago, I put together a small herb box as well.  This year, one of the tomato pots has become a salad greens pot.  It may not seem like much, but I can tell you the snails would be quite upset if I ever got rid of the little herb box.  And this year, they’ve truly enjoyed picking out all but one variety of salad green from the new pot.  Who knew snails had such discriminating palates — erm — radula?

Even though my patio is small by suburban yard standards here, I could squeeze the few things I enjoy harvesting in an even smaller space such as a balcony if I had to.  In other words, it doesn’t take much to grow a few of your own veggies and or herbs.  I’d enjoy planting even more among the roses and succulents I’m currently planting in the newly filled, capped, and painted planters, but until those plants are established, adding anything edible to them isn’t advisable and may never be.  Hence, the pots I have are a great idea because I can move them around according to the seasons and sunlight.

My tomato plants are sporting grape-sized fruit, but the idea frying tiny green tomatoes isn’t as appealing to me as plucking some of the salad greens, a few leaves of the perennial bloody sorrel that continues to thrive, some wild arugula, and purple basil.

Perfect for a wrap with a bit of left over chicken and, if the patio was finished, a nice lunch outside with a good book.  All in due time.

Are you a gardener?  Do you have an outside space to relax in when the weather is pleasant?

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Maple Mousse in a Phyllo Nest with Strawberry and Mango Sauce and a Maple Balsamic Reduction

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After all the years I’ve spent experimenting with recipes I feel I’ve got a decent grasp of which flavors work together, but tend to be a traditionalist — especially in the savory department.  Cilantro goes with onion, tomatoes, spicy peppers, and citrus.  Basil goes with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil.  Bell peppers go with celery and onions.  Once in a while, I’ll play around with one of the combinations, but not often.

I scan the ingredient list of an accomplished chef’s recipe and think, really? wondering where their inspiration comes from.  I dissect it with my own familiarity of and opinion about each flavor in an attempt to understand how one works with the other, but know that my simple lack of experience is my biggest obstacle.  It’s a slow process, but it works if I’m in the mood to tackle one of the often complicated recipes.   Again — not very often.  And even when I do, the experience is rarely if ever repeated, so my ability to grow knowledge beyond my traditional ingredient choices peters out.  Well, except for that dense, rich, dark chocolate tart I’ve made a few times with cayenne and chipotles in adobo.  But still.

A good example of my semi lack of awareness would be with maple syrup.  It makes me think of breakfast:  bacon or ham, eggs, hash browns.  I think of Fall for some reason because I think of apples.  Apples + maple syrup + walnuts = great with a German pancake.  Chalk this up to someone who grew up about as far as one can get from maple trees and their accompanying “sugaring-off” season which occurs as winter’s cold temperatures wane into spring.  Sasha Chapman’s article “The Sweet Life:  Maple Syrup Season in Quebec” published this past March in Saveur magazine provided an excellent foundation to restructure my thinking about maple flavored anything — authentically, of course.  I was drawn into Chapman’s nostalgic description of how Canadians gather in the “sugar shack” and work within the family to make syrup, waiting for that first taste of the season.

Why use maple syrup as an example to explain my not so edge-cutting ingredient combining ability?  Because it’s what the Daring Bakers were challenged with this month.  Color me surprised.  The April 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Evelyne of the blog Cheap Ethnic Eatz. Evelyne chose to challenge everyone to make a maple mousse in an edible container. Prizes are being awarded to the most creative edible container and filling, so vote on your favorite from April 27th to May 27th at http://thedaringkitchen.com!

I had to do a bit of reading to get my head out of my maple syrup rut and consider what flavors might work with a mousse.

It’s spring…

There are berries everywhere…

…and mangoes.

Resisting the addition of a chiffonade of basil, a piquant maple balsamic vinegar reduction was added, and voila.

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An Artichoke “How To” and a Pilaf

It’s a challenge to avoid the huge artichokes in the markets right now.  Maybe not at your market, but mine has them planted right in front of the entrance, so you can’t miss them.  It’s sort of an in-your-face-buy-me display that changes depending on any number of factors that I won’t go on about right now.  I  can usually maneuver past them because they’re so expensive, and as much as I love them, I balk at $4 for one — especially when I can pick up a can of hearts to do something with much more easily.  And in the long run, it’s more safe when you think about tackling those chokes, isn’t it?

Artichokes have a dual personality in my opinion.  There’s the real McCoy — the one you steam in a pot, then enjoy with myriad detours to a bowl of warm lemon butter (never mayonnaise if you’re in this house) that each piece is dipped into, then scraped along your lower teeth.  I grew up eating artichokes like this and it was quite an occasion when my mother brought one home.  Then there are the little hearts, all taken care of, canned, bottled or frozen and ready for any number of delicious dishes.  Thank goodness these choices are available, because waiting until artichoke season to enjoy them would be a problem for me at this point.  I love artichokes.

As I recall the image of our family of five seated around the kitchen table with one huge artichoke and a bowl of lemon butter, I have to wonder.  I always looked forward to it, but do the math.  Not many bites for each of us even when taking into consideration my sister probably didn’t like them.  This occasion for artichokes was never a precursor to dinner.  It was all about that artichoke — savored petal by delicious petal.  Bear in mind the petals were never trimmed, so dealing with the spikes on those tough outer petals involved a lot of caution after the first thumb prick, or a silent sucking it up for each subsequent prick.

It occurs to me we never ate the heart — or at least I don’t remember that we did.  Maybe my stepfather sneaked away with it after we’d lost interest because the lemon butter was gone.  I can see him now, perhaps standing at the kitchen counter enjoying the fact that the hard work had been done by us, and all he had to do was take a spoon, scrape away the fuzzy choke, then savor that amazing heart without having to share.  Denying us awareness of something wonderful.  Scarring us for life.

I could ask my mother about what happened to all those years of artichoke hearts, but she’d say she doesn’t remember.  There would be a few seconds of silence before she’d add she probably threw them away.  Can you imagine?  I can, because I threw them away, too, until I discovered marinated artichoke hearts sometime in my early 20s and put two and two together.  I had no clue they could be eaten.

If they weren’t such a challenge and expense, I’d enjoy them fresh more often in dishes like this lovely pilaf made with rice, orzo, pine nuts, and saffron.

Are you an artichoke lover?  If so, how do you prepare them?

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