Monday, June 18, 2012

Where Love Grows

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. ~Proust

     It was 2005 and at forty-five I’d finally fallen in love and moved to Texas to be with the love of my life. This would be a big adjustment for a city girl like me. John supported my decision to give up my almost 20 year job in retail to become a homemaker and take time to explore my creative interests. I wanted to cook, bake from scratch, write my masterpiece, garden, craft, do yoga and put retail management on the shelf for a while to discover more of who I was inside.

     My main priority quickly became learning all I would need to know to get our food choices in line with our health goals. I read, researched experimented and developed a plan of action. We would eat fresh foods in season, prepared simply in moderate proportions. We would eat smaller meals more often and make our meals interesting and delicious. In no way were we prepared to sacrifice our love of trying new foods, fine wines and sweet treats. We were determined to find that balance between our health and quality of life while never losing the pure joy we find in eating all kinds of foods. 

     Forward to February 2010 John and I began talking about Valentines Day gifties. We had been learning about how the food we buy is sourced, reading Michael Pollan and realizing that the next step in our evolution would be to choose ingredients we felt were clean and ethically produced. To that end we decided that since Valentines Day is about our hearts, we would build beds and plant each other a garden that would care for and nurture our bodies and souls. I could think of no better gift. John built the beds and we prepared them for crops. He’d grown up in Ohio and his family had gardened every year so he was very familiar with what would follow. I grew up in Manhattan and did not know the first thing about what I was in store for. I did remember that my first year with John we planted a tomato and a squash plant and the feeling of bringing something into the kitchen that I had grown was so rewarding. I took photos as if we’d had a baby.

     With limited knowledge and unlimited enthusiasm I set out to comb the Internet for information. It’s funny sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know till you know it. I looked up planting layouts but forgot to look up planting schedules. I planted summer kale and broccoli, which I eventually found out are crops that thrive in cool weather. I learned what happen when you don’t get the composters ratio balance correct (its not pretty). I learned those pretty Disney like white moths will, if unchecked, decimate my crops. On the other hand I learned that the pesto I create from my own basil will transport me to herbal ecstasy and that my non ending crop of cucumbers will provide succulent bread and butter pickles that I will be enjoying all winter long.

 During this process I made a serendipitous connection between my twitter account and my inaugural gardening endeavor. I love it when two hobbies collide and both are made more enjoyable by the collision. I discovered a community, gardeners of all sorts sharing information and helpful hints. There were vegetable gardeners Landscapers, community activist gardeners and cooking enthusiasts like me, making the move to grow their own. I met some friends who deal with the unsung finer points of making ones garden a success, providing tools, seeds, fertilizer and décor. I learned of the magical properties of Moo Poo Tea, which insects were my friends, which were foes and how be an obgyn for squash blossoms when the bees never showed up to pollinate them.

John built these tiered strawberry beds
     My first year with a garden has provided me with more than just fresh vegetables. I have gained new friends, a feeling of accomplishment and the knowledge that anyone can stretch their boundaries beyond their own definitions of who they are and become what they dream of being.  


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Exploring The Navette, Lavender and Orange Flower Water: A Taste of Provence

 Some people like to paint pictures, or do gardening, or build a boat in the basement. Other people get a tremendous pleasure out of the kitchen, because cooking is just as creative and imaginative an activity as drawing, or wood carving, or music. ~Julia Child

     The day had arrived John and I were actually in Provence. How many times had I imagined what it would be like to walk in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Cezanne? Today it was happening it was me touring the coliseum in Arles, smelling the lavender and people watching at the local café. We wandered the maze of age old streets lined with shops where seas of napkins and tablecloths bright with the blues, reds and yellows of Provence seemed to wave a greeting and bid me to come in. Was everything more vibrant more charming and more delicious in the South of France or was I just excited beyond belief to actually be experiencing Arles, Aix en Provence and Cassis for the first time? The answer is probably a little bit of both. 

     It wasn’t long before our love of cooking and food in general led us to the rich and abundant delicacies available in the area. I was impressed by the French sensibility about food. They shop daily for fresh seasonal offerings at a myriad of local farmers markets that set up on a rotating schedule all over the region. Each shopper knows on what day and in what town each market takes place. The vendors pay close attention to the quality of their products and the look of their stalls. Never have I seen more appealing displays of epicurean delights than I have in France.

      While exploring Arles I met a woman running a small patisserie who, amused and entertained by my wide eyed enthusiasm for her baked goods, introduced me to a traditional local cookie-biscuit called the Navette. I found the delicious lavender navettes to be much like Provence itself, beautiful, with a colorful history and carrying a hint of the signature lavender scent. They were a bit harder than a cookie with a slightly chewy quality. They were not what I had expected but I enjoyed the flavor. She explained to me what I was tasting and why it was significant to the culture of Provence.

     Legend has it that Saint Marie arrived in a row boat on the shores of France near Marseille without a sail or an oar. The boat shaped cookie is said to have been developed in the late seventeenth century to commemorate that arrival and is closely tied to local Catholic tradition, so much so that the navette was blessed by the local Archbishop and to this day carries with it a sense of reverence and tradition. Interestingly enough the word navette  translates to the word shuttle and I can see how the biscuit resembles a weaver’s shuttle. I don't know if there is any history behind that reference but I'd love to find out someday.

     Our next stop turned out to land on market day in the magical port village of Cassis. I scurried through the small cobblestone streets toward the cheeses, breads, olives and charcuterie that I knew lay just blocks away. Nothing it seemed could stop me unless of course it was the cookie shop I passed along the way. I stopped short my eyes fixed on rows and rows of neatly stacked cookies and I was drawn into the large welcoming entry, the order and elegance of the cookie displays and the intoxicating smell.  I did get to the market that morning after a brief pause to sample the local navettes.   

      I decided then and there that I would bake these special biscuit style cookies when I returned home. Today is the day I experiment with a small batch of lavender navettes. I bake and cook all the time but this is a new type of recipe for me and I wonder if my home version will even slightly measure up to those I enjoyed in France. Maybe my enjoyment was wrapped up in the entire experience. Maybe my technique and recipe will improve with practice. Maybe sharing this recipe will encourage others to step out of their own culinary comfort zone. Maybe sharing this special moment in my life through food is what matters most. ...Maybe I’ll add orange zest and a few drops of orange flower water to some butter to serve with the navettes. hmmmm maybe.  


 3 cups AP flour (plus a bit more)
1/8 tsp salt 
1 tsp baking powder (powder not soda)
3 Tbs softened butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 TBS orange Flower Water
¼ cup water
1½ TBS culinary lavender
(don’t overdo the lavender it can taste soapy if overused)

The Dough
Add the lavender and salt to the flour and set aside
Cream the softened butter with the sugar in a mixer
 (I used the kitchen aid)
Add the eggs
Add the orange flour water and water 
Slowly add the flour lavender salt mixture
(Low enough speed so the flour doesn’t fly everywhere)
Raise speed to med till all ingredients are incorporated
The mixed dough will look sticky but be fairly easy to scoop out with a bench scrape.
If needed add bit flour a bit at a time till it gets dryer and you can handle it. 
Divide the dough into 12 equal balls add flour if you need it
(Just enough to keep it from sticking to you hands)
Shape each ball into navette shape (oval with pinched ends)
Indent the top (deeply) lengthwise
you can make them smaller and have more navettes if you wish
 Baking The Navettes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Brush tops of navettes with an egg wash
Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until a light golden brown
Cool on cookie sheet.
Tip of the day: I was delighted to use orange flower water for the first time. I highly recommend adding a bit of this fragrant water to add a special twist to favorite recipes. I can’t wait to try it in my French toast batter, in my crepes and my cookie recipes. No matter how much time you spend in the kitchen there is always more to learn and more experimenting to do.
I’ll keep practicing with the navettes and I’m willing to travel back to Provence for a lesson anytime

Friday, May 25, 2012

Focaccia Pizza for our Memorial Day Road Trip

"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." -- Jawaharal Nehru

We are headed out this evening on a road trip to California’s Central Coast for the Memorial Day weekend. For us travel, exploration and adventure have become a way of life. Every trip however brief is an opportunity to meet new friends, discover new towns and gaze in awe at nature’s beauty all around us.

When we take off on these weekend getaways we usually leave after work on a Friday evening. It has become a tradition of ours to pack a picnic dinner to enjoy on the way. Over time I have become quite creative with ideas that will work well on car trips. 

A splendid setting for a road trip picnic
 We always pack an assortment of nuts, dried fruit, homemade cookies and the ever popular carrot sticks but we try to keep our snack choices ever changing and tasty. I’ve baked kale chips, sweet potato chips, prepared fresh almond butter on celery sticks and popped popcorn. One of the handiest most enjoyed road trip dinners has been the focaccia pizza. Baking the focaccia is quite easy and provides a blank canvas to any topping that suits your fancy. This trip I’ll bake the pizza topped with caramelized onion, sun dried tomato, artichoke hearts and sauteed spinach with garlic.

Note: I like to caramelize the onion in advance and set it aside. It requires cooking at low slow pace to really make it turn out perfectly. 
The Focaccia
1.5   cups warm water +1.5 TBS (extra water needed when I use part wheat flour)
1      tablespoon yeast
1.25 teaspoon salt
2      tablespoon olive oil
2      cups AP flour
1.5   cups white wheat flour
¼    teaspoon cayenne pepper (to taste)
½    teaspoon of your favorite herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary or any Italian combo)
2      tablespoons grated Parmesan (add it right into the dough)
Mix all above ingredients together (I use the kitchen aid mixer) till combined
When mixed I place dough on an oiled (olive) ¼ sheet pan (9X13)

This dough is wetter and softer than other types of dough
I use a spatula to get it on the baking sheet.
I also put olive oil on my hands to keep the dough from sticking to me as I spread it out evenly covering the baking sheet.

I cover with plastic wrap and let it rise (about one hour)

After it rises I make indentations with my fingers and drizzle a bit more olive oil on top.

I artfully place my toppings on the dough and place in a 375 degree oven till done
before adding cheese
After adding the cheese
 Today’s toppings

½ cup artichoke hearts
1,5 cups fresh spinach (I sautéed with garlic)
1 red onion (caramelized)
½ cup sun dried tomatoes (I chop and sprinkle)
1 cup shredded Mozzarella

I bake the pizza for 35-40 minutes till perfectly done.
Total Coast: around $10.00

This pizza is a great alternative to the classic sandwich and very adaptable to any occasion. When we travel I don’t use meat on the pizza but when I serve it at home I experiment with all kinds of toppings. If I have house guests I adapt the topping to include scrambled eggs and bacon crumbles topped with cheddar cheese for an easy fresh and unique breakfast offering. The roasted veggie version would even pair splendidly with a classic Italian dinner.
As you decide how to spend this Memorial Day weekend consider a picnic and consider this pizza. Whether you travel to a National Park, local fields of wildflowers or you simply venture into your own backyard, get friends and family together and delight in each others company.

Happy Memorial Day & Happy picnicking