Kentucky Derby Mint Julep – Starting From Scratch

Mint Julep It has always eluded me..the Mint Julep thing. Spend all that time choosing the perfect outfit.A good deal of thought goes towards the perfect Derby hat. But the Mint Julep, which everyone respectfully carries around while laying bets on the horse, is usually not so perfect – the Mint Julep.  This year I decided to research the drink, and came up with some interesting ideas. The results? Mint Juleps are incredibly refreshing and delicious when prepared correctly.

Mint Juleps are typically done by bruising (muddling) fresh mint with sugar in the bottom of a glass, filling with ice, pouring the bourbon over that, stirring gently, then topping it with fresh mint. This recipe isn’t that.

Here’s the secret I learned from an expert that takes only a little planning. A few weeks in advance get your hands on some alright bourbon , (don’t judge my bourbon-said expert said “any” bourbon will do) and a large handful of fresh mint. Wash and dry the mint, place it in a large jar, pour the bourbon over it, and cover it tightly. Maybe it’ll snow between now and the Kentucky Derby,but that bottle of golden liquid is steeping in a cupboard, infusing the beautiful mint into it’s essence. And you’ll be busy sizing up  horses and jockeys.minted bourbon in the makingminted bourbon in jar steeping

The next secret, well it isn’t really so secret, is to make a minted simple syrup. Simple syrup is a (simple) thing to do. Take a nice bunch (large handful) of fresh mint. Add it to a cup of sugar and a cup of water. Place it all in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the sugar is dissolved, turn off the heat and let it sit for about an hour. Gently press the juices from the mint into the liquid, then throw away the mint.  Strain it into a jar and keep in the refrigerator (up to a month)This way you aren’t “bruising” the mint, which is said to give the Julep an off taste.

Now for the Mint Julep:

Use crushed ice. Finer is better. Fill the glass with it. A good tip, again from said expert, is to place the ice in a canvas bag and crush it with a carpenters mallet, which gives it a perfect consistency.   Pour about 2 Tablespoons of the minted simple syrup over the ice and top it with the minted bourbon. Stir it gently with a spoon. Top it with fresh mint leaves and enjoy. Sip it slowly. It’s a sturdy drink. As the ice melts, the blending of the mint, icy water and bourbon make it all the more refreshing.minted julip on fenceThe horse comes in for his sweet feed. He doesn’t like Mint Juleps. I know that I’ve published this too late to steep the bourbon, but you can make the simple syrup tomorrow, and remember this recipe for the next horse race.minted bourbon the horse

Violets In My Champagne

It’s February 7th, and I’m itching for Spring to have…SPRUNG!

Boston is expecting the blizzard of the century tomorrow. The Laurel Highlands is expecting balmy 45-50 degree weather; the sun is warmer than it was a month ago; a lovely bird was absolutely belting out an early morning promise – acapella – at 7am this morning.  And I started envisioning fields of violets. Yes, a gentle breeze, air pregnant with rain, gurgling brook emptying to the pond, dandilions everywhere, and patches of violets. I come from a long line of wild violet lovers.april 19 beautiful violetLast week my favorite husband and I went to a Champagne and Tapas bar in Pittsburgh. It was a fascinating experience that certainly broadened our minds to embrace Champagne and sparkling wines as we never had before. Since I consider myself to be fairly ignorant  on the subject, Jennifer, the bar manager, treated us to quite an evening. Here’s the happy girl:

champagne and bartender Her pleasant personality, breadth of knowledge, and passion for champagne took us to another world in the land of bubbles. Although most of the Champagne “drinks” disguised the subtle perfumes of Champagne, and who’d want to do THAT, there was one that was particularly fetching.  The Kir Yvette Champagne Cocktail was fascinating to drink, to look at and, maybe most important in February, to think about. The scent of crushed violet petals, mixed with a touch of blackberries and, well read this.

Excited, yes?

Here’s a nice little line up of some of the drinks we enjoyed. The Champagne Yvette Cocktail is in the middle. The famous Bellini to the left, a lovely California Rose Sparkling Wine to the right.Champagne cocktailsWe discovered that most Champagne cocktail drinks mask the beauty of the Champagne, but not the bubbles. So, depending on the “why” of sipping bubbly, there were drinks that reminded me of a daiquiri, all the way to the Yvette, which was so subtle and delicate that it has become quite the fascination for this OCD leaning gal.  🙂  Imagine being told you’re sipping on crushed berries and violet petals – and it is the dead of winter 10 degrees and gray, and the sun will never shine again – and here you are all wrapped in your mink coat (faux, if this vision rubs you the wrong way) – soft lighting and music are making your heart merry –  and you’re with your best ever boyfriend. Ladies?

I share this with you because while most of my friends who love the out doors will be playing in the soil in April, as will I. I will also be gathering violets by the baskets, washing them, destemming them, and crushing them into a bottle of good quality vodka with just the correct amount of sugar (or honey). Then I’ll place that concoction into a clay jar, cover and let set for a month.  I shall have Creme de Violette.  And shall make bubbly cocktails from it in the dead of winter, when everything is gray, and a toasty fire is in the hearth, and Spring is calling me.

Amen.violets after a rain ready for sugar coating

Meringue Swirls of Lavender and Lime

All spring we’ve been making these puffy clouds.  Cinco de Mayo brought orange and lemon flavors in red and green stripes; Kelly’s bridal shower produced orange and lime in a pretty apricot shade; today a walk through my garden gave me an idea.  

Lavender is amazing.  Beautiful, fragrant and delightful to cook with.  As a member of the mint family it has a refreshingly astringent taste.  Each year I gather stems just as the buds are opening and hang them to dry.  Then I keep them in airtight containers for cooking.  Pretty soft lavender blossoms are pretty sprinkled over cakes; steeped in milk and then strained out for lavender scones and lavender panna cotta.  When my children were small we’d make a drink called Lavender and Lime.  It was delicious and refreshing  for a summer afternoon by the pond.  Why not swirl lavender and lime zest into meringue cookies?

This morning as I considered how to describe what makes meringue cookies so special (I confess I had never once chosen them from a cookie tray).  Until you sink your teeth…not so, no teeth required… until you press one to your lips you haven’t encountered the beauty of pillows of flavor bursting in your mouth.  If we could dine on clouds!Elle snapped this photo at a  picnic in the Laurel Highlands.

Don’t be frightened by past meringue failures. Meringue always flopped for me until I finally researched.  If you think meringue is difficult this recipe should help.

SOME TIPS

1. Egg whites room temperature and not fresh from the hen

2. Oven temperatures very low and it takes a long time

3. Best to use metal or glass bowls

4. Even a tiny amount of egg yolk or fat/oil will prevent eggs from whipping properly

5. Don’t do this when it is humid in the house.

If this information discourages you maybe you should not try these – but come now – are you kidding?  Think of it as an art experiment.

8. There are three methods of making meringue: Swiss, French and Italian. I encourage you to look this site over http://www.epicureanpiranha.com/2010/meringue-types-techniques/. She has done her homework.  I’ve tried them all and they all work as long as you apply the aforementioned 5 rules.

While this recipe uses lavender and lime, you can just as easily make them vanilla bean, orange, lemon, almond; use your imagination and have fun.

*The tiny holes you see in the meringues I made are because I did this last night and I think we were at 80% humidity. Should have seen that one coming – we’ve had torrential rainfall since midnight.

YOU WILL NEED:

4 egg whites

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar or vinegar

pinch salt

2 tablespoons dried lavender buds

1 teaspoon lime zest

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/4 vanilla bean, scraped

parchment paper or Silpat

food color gel

small paint brush

pastry bag and large tip (I’ll show you)

Great tool!

METHOD:

Divide eggs. Save yolks for something like Pasta Carbonara or pound cake

Take the lavender buds and sugar and whirl them in a food processor until they are blended and the sugar isn’t completely powdered but fine. Then stir in the lime zest.To the bowl of room temperature egg whites add the cream of tartar/vinegar, vanilla and pinch of salt.  With electric mixer beat whites at high speed for about 30-45 seconds until white and foamyContinuing to beat on high speed add sugar, 1/4 cup at a time. Beat just until all is incorporated.  Following are some photos that will show the stages the meringue goes through until it is ready. It has to be very firm to hold it’s shape through the baking process.

Starting to hold shape

NOT YET

PERFECTION!

At this stage the meringue can take on any shape at all and hold it beautifully.

Now how to make those swirls:

Take the assembled pastry bag with the large tip on the end, lay it on the counter and make sure it’s open.  If you use a jar, take a tiny paint brush and draw three very thin lines, spaced evenly, up the sides of the bag -starting from down at the base and draw lines to about two inches from the top.  If you use a tube of gel it will make a perfect line, no brush needed. Then place the bag carefully inside a sturdy glass or something similar so that you can fill it with meringueCarefully fill the bag with meringue, pushing it gently down to the bottom.  Don’t worry if a little of the gel smears, it will still work.Twisting from the top to add pressure and force the meringue out, start making small circles on the silpat or parchment on a cookie sheet.  As you make the circle use less pressure as you reach the top and allow it to form a peak.Space them just so the edges don’t touch.

Place them on the middle rack of a preheated to 250 degree oven (for meringues that are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter).  If you choose to make larger meringues you may want to use a 300 degree oven.  Bake them for somewhere between one and two hours, checking to see that they don’t brown.  The goal is to cook them very slowly, which allows them to dry thoroughly.  It is advisable to then turn the oven to off and let them remain in the oven with the door closed for several more hours or over night.  A test when you are checking them is that they don’t feel at all sticky when touched lightly.  And beyond that test is that they don’t adhere at all to the parchment or silpat when lifted.  When all that is good, turn off the oven and leave them to finish drying.  Not doing this will result in gummy or deflated meringues-pillows-clouds

Orange and Vanilla Bean Meringues – why won’t this photo turn upright?

Giant Lemon and Orange Meringues make pretty Bridal Shower favors

Simple Bruschetta

You saw this in my bread recipe.

It’s all I eat all summer. I have very little to say about this bruschetta recipe. It’s delicious. Garlicy. Summery. Balsamic vinegary. All of the best things. You can make it in less than five minutes and pair it with bread and wine and a porch. In this recipe, I used fresh frozen basil from a brand called Dorot that sells trays of cubed herbs. My boss picked up a container for me from Trader Joes, and I have used it to add that uniquely summer taste to everything from scrambled eggs to spaghetti.

Enjoy.

Simple Bruschetta
Makes 2-3 Servings

1 large tomato, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, diced
1/2 cube Dorot basil, or a small handful fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, combine the tomato, garlic, basil, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Stir until wholly combined. Set aside at room temperature for at least 15 minutes – time allows the flavors to blend – before eating.

Candied Violets and Lilac Blossoms

They are beautiful. They are exotic. They are delicious.

Have you ever eaten a flower?  They taste exactly like they smell, and taking time to crystallize them is artfully therapeutic.

However, if you are hoping for a buddy to assist you’ll probably need to bribe them.  I’m thinking wine but if you don’t drink – this takes tons of time – I’m still thinking wine.

OR…

this could be the perfect distraction for the “chat” you need to have with ____.  Both will be so engaged in candying flowers that there will be no awkwardness.  Where was this idea when I was stumbling through awkward chats?

The photo below is of our beautiful lilacs under branch breaking wet snow. This was dubbed Snowpril by the media.  The biggest snow in late April in recent memory.

And this…

…made me pick all these sweet violets and lilacs so they would not freeze.

Candying (crystallizing) flowers kind of suspends them in time.  I like that!  In December I can bite into one of the tiny lilac flowers, close my eyes, and be back in May for a moment.  That will be very nice, let alone how beautiful they are even underneath a layer of crisp sugar.

THESE ARE SO BEAUTIFUL.

Enough tiny flowers that will be lovely on cakes or petit fours, cupcakes.   I learned how to do something new, all because of a big bad storm. I work several jobs, most of us do; you know how life gets going and you can’t stop until one day you take a deep breath and say “Where did Spring go?”.  “I think I missed it.”.

To get started you will need bunches of very fresh edible flowers: violets, lilacs, borage, pansies, rose petals and even mint leaves.

Very Important:  Do NOT ever use flowers that have had chemicals used on them.  If there is any uncertainty do not use them.

Choose only perfect flowers and leaves that have not begun to wilt at all.  This is important.  Even the smallest amount of wilting will collapse under the little bit of weight of egg wash and sugar. Look back at the lilacs under that wet snow.  A healthy fresh flower has amazing staying power.  That was a 48 hour heavy snow they survived.

Egg White(1): beaten with a fork until frothy (If you have concern about raw eggs choose instead powdered egg whites found on the grocery store shelf).

Refined Sugar(1 cup) : (not powdered, not granulated)  Can take granulated sugar, whir it in a blender for about 15 seconds and it becomes what is called refined sugar.  Too long and it becomes powdered

Waxed paper, 2 small bowls and a small paint brush for each person.  Also, a cookie sheet or cooling rack to on which to dry flowers.  To store, you will need a tin or plastic container to layer flowers between waxed paper so they will keep for up to a year.  If tightly sealed, the flowers can be frozen in the container and keep longer than a year.

You are ready to start.  Remember – only fully fresh flowers. Discard weak or fading flowers.

Here is an example of perfect:

Take the paint brush and dip it into the foamy egg whites and literally paint every exposed part of the flower, including the inside and the back and tops of the stem.

This takes time so just let go and give yourself over to it.   I’ve read about the idea of immersing the whole flour into the egg whites to save time, and some flowers might do okay but mine got all snarly and bunched up and it ended up either ruining them or I had to take even more time unfolding the petals again.  Just go for the right method.  Put the flower on the waxed paper if it helps.  Then you will immerse the flower in the refined sugar, again making sure every visible part is covered.

After that process is finished make sure the petals look the way you want them to and place the flower gently onto the waxed paper to dry

Do the same with lilac blossoms.  Lilacs separate in small “bouguets” and can be candied  like I did in the photo above, or do individual flowers.  Lilacs are much easier to work with than violets because they are sturdier.

Candied flowers should be saved for only extremely special occasions or gifted to someone who will appreciate them.

Fresh lilacs on a carrot cake!

SAUSAGE AND POTATO STEW IN LEMON ROSEMARY BROTH

Another very simple delicious dish.

Spring nights are still quite cool here in the highlands.  While robust wintery meals have been vanquished from the table, there are often evenings that need the “chill” taken off.  This stew has a  summery touch of rosemary and lemon that makes it a perfect segway into the warmer seasons. Because it’s easy and such an interesting mix of flavors  it has become one of my “Go-To” meals.

All it needs is….notice  I say “needs” ….a beautiful yeasty crunchy baguette.    If I recall correctly the first go around making this dish was only because I had an excellent baguette on hand and needed something to dip it in.  This is goodness all by itself, naked, no bread will be missed.  C’est la vie!

We gobbled this down so fast I didn’t have a chance to photograph it in the bowls.

You need:

2 lbs. sweet or hot Italian sausages, cut up into halves or thirds.  I use both sweet and hot’

3 lbs of baby red potatoes.  Culinary license here – can use all purpose and cut them in big chunks

1 lb Escarole, Endive or both

2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tablespoon olive oil, extra virgin *always better for you

1 cup dry white wine

2 quarts chicken broth

1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary or 2 teaspoons dry

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Method:

In a large dutch oven or soup pot, heat olive oil and drop cut up sausages in and cook over medium high heat, turning over from time to time until they are browned on the outside.  Add potatoes, rosemary, garlic and half of the lemon zest and toss to coat.  Cook these, stirring until the potatoes start to brown just a little bit

After this is browned reduce heat to medium and stir in the wine and cook until it is reduced to about half, stirring.  This will smell wonderful. A this point go ahead and add all of the chicken broth.  The goal is to have enough broth to cover the ingredients by at least an inch or two.  You can add more broth or water and chicken bouillon if you are concerned you won’t have enough liquid.  It’s not a soup, but it is going to need a spoon (or a baguette :)) when you serve it to get all the yummy broth.  In the meantime chop the endive and escarole, making sure they are properly rinsed and drained in a colander 

This is going to look like you have far more greens than you’ll ever be able to fit into the stew.  Don’t be alarmed.  Trust me, they will cook down so fast you’ll wonder if you added enough of them.

I’ve only placed about 1/4 of the chopped greens in the pot and it’s over flowing.  What you will do is gently push the greens under and into the broth and watch how fast they cook down.  It takes less than a minute, then you keep on adding it in until all the greens are cooking at a slow simmer for about 10-15 minutes.

Once the potatoes and greens are tender it’s ready to adjust seasonings, add the rest of the lemon zest and serve.  This is where you’ll add salt and pepper by tasting it to see if you need any.  Sausages and broth are somewhat salty.  Our son encouraged Kelly, our soon-to-be-daughter-in-law to take notes on this for the future

All done!

Note to self:  This dish can be over cooked to the point where the greens are mushy and so are the potatoes.  Don’t let that happen!

It’s so very very nice when a clean up committee (of one) comes along to finish the job!  Thanks Honey 🙂

You are THE BEST!!!

Chicken Noodle Soup – Walt’s Simple Kindness

It my daughter’s fault I made this.  She gave me “that look” that even grown kids manage when they don’t feel well. You know the look; the one that totally melts your heart and you become energized with all sorts of thoughts of how to make them comfortable.  A mother’s a mother forever.

My Father-in-Law shared this recipe with me. He was a man of solid principle.  Every thing he did was thought out and had kindness and integrity at it’s root.  He loved the Lord, his wife, his family and all those who crossed his path …except politicians. Oh what the heck, had a politician crossed his path they would have gone away with a little more joy and peace in their soul and certainly not hungry!

Every once in awhile he would take over the kitchen.  He so mastered the art of baking cookies and making candy to bestow upon the  unsuspecting  that I did not remember he knew how to  cook anything else.  He made a mean pot of hot sausage smothered in sauce for tailgating so that everyone could encourage  the beloved Pittsburgh Steelers with more vigor and onion on the breath – and a mean pot of chicken soup.

“Dutch” is what he called my mother in law for no apparent reason.  He was Spike, she was Dutch and they had some serious love and contentment between them that made room for immense generosity towards others.

In order to make this a gluten free recipe I had to make a few changes.  Instead of canned broth I build a chicken stock from scratch.  Also, I like big pieces of carrot instead of chopping it like he did, so petite carrots left whole are in my recipe.  Of course the search for a gluten free noodle was a challenge, but when I came across some I just had to make this soup.

Here goes!!!

You need:

Chicken: one whole chicken, cut up

Water

Bouillon: 2 gluten free cubes (not required unless you want to eat this as soon as you make it)

Carrots: 1 lb petite carrots

Onion: 3 small onions, 2 of them chopped and one peeled and studded with

Whole Cloves: between 5 and 10 driven into the raw onion, like this

Celery:  1 whole bunch cleaned, brown tips removed and chopped

Noodles: gluten free. (I used Sam Mills Pasta d’oro Lasagne corte-like mini lasagna’s)  By the way, these are holding up beautifully in the soup instead of disintegrating like so many others

Salt, thyme, 1 bay leaf, several peppercorns

1 teaspoon sugar

1 Tablespoon butter

*for some reason no salt was needed.  I don’t know why except maybe the noodles had enough in them from the salted water they were cooked in.

Method:

In a large soup pot ( 7 quart cast iron dutch oven is perfect) melt the butter

Add the vegetables and herbs and peppercorns, cooking over medium high heat for a few minutes to brown  the vegetables a little bit

Place chicken pieces on top of sauteed vegetables

Cover with water, enough to nearly fill the pot

Bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer for half an hour.  At this point I like to taste the broth and enhance it with gluten free bouillon cubes and sugar if it’s needed

Continue to cook for another half an hour or until the chicken is cooked completely through and the vegetables are tender.  Then remove chicken and lower heat to very low and cook, allowing the flavors to blend more while chicken cools. In my family this is where my daughters get all squeemish about having to take the chicken off the bones.  But hey, that’s life!  Take the skin off the chicken, then remove the meat and put the meat back into the pot.  At this point you should also remove the whole onion that has the cloves in it.  Let that cool too and then, a trick someone taught me, squeeze all the juice out of the onion back into the soup and discard the remaining …onion and cloves..this add tons of flavor to the broth.

At this point you can place a pot of water, adding a Tablespoon of salt, over heat, bring to a boil and add noodles.  Cook until al dente (to the tooth), drain and add into the soup.

At this point I like to chill the soup overnight.  This does two things.  First, it allows the fats to come to the surface and is easier to skim off.  Second, oh my gosh how the flavors improve by giving it at least 8 hours!

Here you go!