March 29, 2016

Say Hello to Spring: Fennel Risotto with Egg

Farm Fresh Eggs and Fennel
Some wives would have good cause to worry if they learned that their husbands had a few chicks in their life, but when Mr. B casually mentioned to me that he'd made the acquaintance of several girls, I couldn't have been happier. I'm lucky; Mr. B's a stand up guy with values, but he's also the sort of fella who makes good culinary connections, so when he shared the news, I knew there were a few dozen eggs in my future.

Anyone who has never eaten a fresh egg can't understand how incredibly delicious--and different--they are compared to a store bought egg, or even the lengths that one would go to in an attempt to secure a steady supply.

By any account, we live in the country, or, more aptly put, along California's Central Coast, a less densely populated and more remote part of the state and if you ask me, more beautiful. There are no streetlights on my road, so if I stay out past sunset and have forgotten the porch light, I'm left to fumble through pitch darkness, the lavender bushes and rosemary are obstacles on my path, the branches from the climbing roses reach out like anonymous hands, their thorns, sharp fingernails capable of drawing blood, and the fear of running into an overgrown raccoon is quite enough to hasten my step.

From my upstairs window, I can see the pony across the street and though just out of my line of sight, I can smell the lambs and hear their bleating. If I step out of my kitchen door and onto my back steps, I can make out the top of the chicken coop next door, though my neighbors, after a lengthy and untenable battle with a trio of foxes, stopped raising chickens and decided to try their hand at ducks, instead. The neighbors two houses down have had better luck outsmarting the foxes, but not in selecting a roster. The one they have has no sense of time and crows at odd times day and night.

It was these neighbors, the ones with the mixed up roster, who years ago, when their kids were in high school and looking for extra money, left a note on our door asking if we'd be interested in fresh eggs, to which we quickly agreed. Soon after, the first dozen arrived. We found them at our front door and after a long day's work, decided on frying a few up for dinner. The yolks were big as golf balls and a deeply saturated yellow so intense that they shocked me at first glance. It only took a single bite for us to fully understand the difference and within a few days, our first dozen was gone.

March 16, 2016

Seeing The Light: Lentil and Apple Salad

Hearty Lentil Salad with Apples and Garlic Vinaigrette
There's no denying that winter, along with my hopes for El Nino, are coming to an end. Though there have been scattered showers and a storm or two, nothing much has come of the weatherman's predictions, so I've decided to stop waiting and move on. It's time for me to embrace Spring with deserved enthusiasm.

Spring is a marvelous season, especially here, since the winters are just cold enough to give everything a good shock. After a streak of warm days, the landscape seems an explosion of color and everywhere I rest my eyes, there are blossoms to admire, from the perky yellow daffodil to the formal, erect purple iris, to the burst of pink from the plum trees; the slightest wind blows the tiny white flowers from the stark branches of the pear and apple trees and their fragrant blooms fall like snow to the ground below.

Along with the requisite Spring cleaning to be done around the house, it's time to dig deep into the recesses of the refrigerator. This time, I managed to unearth two apples, lingering on the bottom of the crisper and a box of steamed lentils that I'd hidden away with the intent of making a hearty soup. With the addition of a few other ingredients--parsley from my garden, tender ribs of celery, a crumble of feta cheese, a handful of walnut pieces, and a rather lackluster tasting Roma tomato purchased on impulse--I had the makings of a delicious and filling salad.

This salad packs well and is best enjoyed outdoors among the beautiful pastoral landscapes among the wildflowers--the perfect excuse for me to sneak away with Mr. B for a mid-morning hike and a picnic lunch. Here's to Spring!

March 08, 2016

Ginger Ale: A Magical Elixir

Homemade Ginger Ale: Here's to Good Health
It’s no coincidence that the majority of airline passengers request ginger ale as the beverage cart moves down the middle aisle. Ginger ale has long been known for its ability to ease digestive discomfort and relieve motion sickness. But, while this carbonated beverage is relatively new, people have relied on the healing powers of ginger for centuries.

In Greece, it was Hippocrates himself who witnessed the remarkable restorative powers of ginger when administered to sailors so stricken with sea sickness they couldn’t right themselves long enough to board their ships. 

Those who finally got their ‘sea legs’ were likely responsible for transporting ginger from its native South East Asia across the high seas and to the warm, humid Caribbean islands were it quickly took root and flourished.

On land, explorers and adventurers set off to mysterious and foreign locales where they learned new landscapes and traveled makeshift roads in search of ginger. These rhizomes, hidden deep in the earth with their knobby finger-like appendages, were highly coveted for their culinary punch and curative powers.

The Ancient Romans and Greeks—even the Celtics—realized the medicinal properties of ginger. There was no way—or need—for these early healers and medical practitioners to know it, but science has since proven that ginger possesses two properties that make it a virtual wonder drug. The first, gingerol, is a powerful anti-inflammatory not only effective in treating inflammation in the body, but in providing relief from arthritis and even inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. The second, zingibain, is an antibacterial long used to prevent infection and treat wounds.

During the Middle Ages, ginger was stirred into stew pots to enliven even the most insipid of gruels, taken by the spoonful to stimulate a sluggish digestive system and reportedly, even favored by the gentry as a potent aphrodisiac.

Preservation was key in preventing fresh ginger root from rotting. The most popular method was by creating a ‘ginger bug’—mashed or sliced ginger root added to water along with honey. Left alone, the ginger bug would ferment and percolate, morphing into a powerful brew that delivered ginger’s seemingly magical medicinal properties along with the beneficial bacteria from fermentation.
If history stood still, the ‘ginger bug’ may never have evolved. But, along with the Industrial Revolution and an ever increasing and curious population, the notion that there was—somewhere—an elixir capable of restoring the body’s humors while serving as both a remedy and stimulant liberated the humble ginger bug from the confines of the kitchen and put it into the hands of the pharmacist.

Pharmacists were a curious breed. They practiced the art of apothecary while employing both the knowledge of the chemist and the skill of the physician. During the 1800s they were part of the great drug revolution as they opened small storefronts in towns all across America. Their shops served as community centers where people would gather for gossip and news and more importantly, a cure for whatever ailed them.

Competition was stiff, so these drugstore apothecaries took to their brass kettles and concocted secret recipes and sweet syrups by mixing botanicals, herbs, spices—even caffeine and cocaine—not only to make the medicine go down easier, but to keep customers coming back.
The advent of the corner pharmacy coincided with another invention—the ability to instill carbon dioxide into plain water, paving the way for the popularity of the carbonated beverage. It didn’t take long for the soda fountain to become a common fixture in the pharmacy and seemingly, overnight, the pharmacist’s secret recipes and syrups were added to carbonated water to create their own special tonics.

The first known ginger ale originated in Belfast around 1850 and was a ferment of ginger root, lime and black pepper. However, in the United States, ginger ale wasn’t widely available until the 1860s when pharmacist James Vernor mixed up his version—reportedly containing 19 ingredients—and letting it steep in wooden barrels until it was a deep, dark caramel color with a robust and gingery taste.

Interestingly, it was Canadian pharmacist John McLaughlin who created a ginger ale that appealed to American tastes, although not in the way he intended. In 1907, he lighted it up his recipe and marketed it as pale and dry—hence the name, Canada Dry®-- which earned it the reputation as “The Champagne of Ginger Ale.” During Prohibition, it was the favorite mixer to ease the burn of bathtub gin and homemade moonshine.

Today’s commercially available ginger ales are little more than sugar water with added flavors and colors and lack the true beneficial properties of ginger. With relatively few ingredients and a little time, anyone can make their own ginger bug and enjoy a stimulating tonic whenever they’d like—alcohol optional, or course!

March 02, 2016

I Love You Lox

Loaded Lox Bagel

I haven't always loved eating fish. As a child, fish haunted me. Most likely the root cause came from two very traumatic experiences. The first, a few fishing trips with my father where the very least of it had to do with fish hooks. Rather it was watching the fish after they'd been caught as they writhed on the bottom of the boat, frantically gasping their last breaths. Yet, while those violent images are still fresh in my mind, it was nothing compared to the life long scarring that came from finding fish scales on my fish sticks in the elementary school cafeteria.

That was the point that I swore off all fish and began a long and successful practice of deftly spitting out whole fish dinners into my napkin where later, after I had been excused, I could secretly flush them down the toilet.

Somewhere in my teens, though I can't recall when or where, I discovered salmon and thus began a lifelong love. I've grown to love all seafood--with the exception of mackerel, herring, and sardines--but, I could eat salmon day in and day out, never tiring of its rich fattiness, salty nuances, and satisfying meatiness. I'm picky though; I always eat wild salmon and positively swoon when the Kings come into season.

I love lox, too. Atop dark rye bread topped with a thick layer of avocado, a squeeze or Myer lemon, and fresh cracked pepper; straight from the package, the strips sliced so thin their translucency veers to the transparent; and of course, piled high onto a sliced everything bagel generously smeared with cream cheese and accessorized with sliced red onions and cucumber, capers, and heaps and heaps of fresh alfalfa sprouts.

Popular at brunches everywhere, I like mine for lunch. In the springtime, it's best enjoyed outdoors with views of the budding pear and plum trees and the air heady with the faint sweetness of the first roses. And if chance permits, it goes perfectly well with a glass of bubbly, or a good white wine.