Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Crispy Cook is Let Loose in Virginia and West Virginia

We are back at the Crispy Casa having been sprung for a week to tour parts of Virginia and West Virginia. Dan and I had a blast seeking out sites of historic interest, natural beauty and quirkiness. And of course, we were hunting for books and good food along the way, kicking it old-school without a GPS or smart phone to guide us (though I did plenty of guidebook and internet research ahead of time, and we did have a laptop that plugged into our hotels at night).

Here's the highlight of Days 1 (and 7!), the long driving days of our trip: the most awesome Latin food at La Isla in West
Hazelton, PA. We were in need of a mid-afternoon lunch and just pulled randomly off Interstate 81 into this town. We're not much for the zoo food of chain restaurants and fast food eateries, so we prowled for more miles off the exit than we wanted in search of deliciousness. Just as we were about to turn around we stumbled into the triangular intersection of two streets lured by what appeared to be many contractors' trucks (those guys can nose out good eats) parked at a renovated gas station turned eatery.
It was La Isla, which was a bustling Latin restaurant filled with delicious smells and lots of folks both dining in and taking out. We waited until the crowd died down and then peppered the counter guy with tons of questions about the food, which he was most gracious about. 
Dan's gluten-free, so he was told that he could eat anything on the menu that day that wasn't fried. We each got a plate of two main dishes with plantains, rice and bean soup. I had the most delicious baked chicken, while Dan feasted on roast pork. We were stuffed and happy as we hit the road again, and it was truthfully the best meal we've had in a long time. It was so good, that we made sure to stop back on our return drive and order up twice as much to go (stewed goat and chicken!), which we've been depleting in the last several days since we've been back.  
We spent Night #1 in Winchester, VA, which has a great stock of 18th century architecture, a lively pedestrian mall and an amazing Beaux Arts public library gem: The Handley Library. From the curved and gilded radiators to the window seat bench nooks to the interior rotunda, every little nook in this jewel is so inviting and luxuriously detailed. They also have a little used book room, but it was closed when we arrived as the (only?) volunteer had gone home for the day.

We stayed at the historic George Washington Hotel with a great old-fashioned lobby and the biggest walk-in granite-lined shower stall I've ever seen. Bodacious amounts of hot water and water pressure and no plastic shower curtain clinging to my legs We scooped up jerk chicken from a local Jamaican restaurant and feasted like kings in our comfy hotel room while watching the Cards unfortunately lose Game 5 of the World Series.

One thing that was really strange about our day in
Winchester was the birds. We were strolling around at night and heard some enchanting birdsong up in a tree. Then we noticed the unbelievable encrustation of bird guano on the sidewalk and quite a layering all over a car parked next to the tree and we quickly scooted away. We saw this same guano phenomenon on several other sidewalks and wonder what kind of Hitchcock birds are making this mess and whether it's just migrating flocks or a constant avian population.

We devoted the whole next day to tooling down the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and it wasn't nearly enough time to soak it all in. The Skyline Drive takes you along the Blue Ridge Mountain tops for 75 miles or so, with some 90 overlooks among its twists and turns. I had an old edition of Henry Heatwole's Skyline Drive Guide with us and this was a great reference as we approached the mile markers and learned about the historical or geographical significance of each spot. 
We were past autumn leaf peak, but there were still lots of gorgeous muted foliage west through the Shenandoah Valley and east toward the Piedmont Valley. We got out for one short hike at Fox Hollow and saw some remnants of mountain settler homes and grave sites and had a mountaintop picnic of the rest of our Jamaican delights. Hazel Ridge and the Big Meadow were particularly memorable Skyline sites.

Day 3: Fulfilling a long-time dream to see Thomas Jefferson's self-designed home and farm, Monticello, we joined a large number of other history buffs who received timed tickets to view the house and grounds. A bus takes you atop the Little Mountain (Monticello in Italian) and then a tour guide takes small groups through various rooms of the downstairs. The home is exquisite: perfectly proportioned, filled with historic treasures, fossils, books and scientific instruments. 

Though it was late October, there were still plenty of flowers and vegetables in the expansive gardens that cascade down the terraced hills. A couple of gardeners were tending the heirloom vegetables and herbs, which contained many exotic items like cardoons and elecampane, and we were surprised to see an abundance of hot peppers. We lingered for a long while, examining the wine cellars (
Jefferson preferred wine shipped in individual glass bottles rather than wooden casks as they were less likely to be watered down by "rascally boatmen") and then made our way downhill past Jefferson's gravesite and through a sun-dappled forest. 

The museum back at the
Monticello base camp focuses on the architectural designs and building construction details of Monticello, but I was left wondering how the initial site preparation was undertaken. Jefferson had 150 slaves, but the logistics of getting them, provisions and supplies up a steep mountain in the late 1700s-early 1800s and how on earth they leveled the top of the mountain, improved the rocky soil and removed tree stumps without power equipment seems a monumental task. Dan was squinting up close to see the fabulous books from Jefferson's library (these are replacements since Jefferson sold his volumes to the Library of Congress after they were burned in a fire during the War of 1812).

I might have pressed on to tour two more nearby presidential abodes Chez James Monroe/Madison, but Dan was a hungry man and wanted to check out downtown Charlottesville, so we headed in that direction and had a restorative meal at Eppie's. They were gracious enough to allow Dan to have the day before's Carolina Salad special which was gluten-free and I had a tasty pulled pork sandwich with great collard greens with a peppery vinegar accompaniment. 

Note shelf title for the Civil War books
Thus revitalized, we sought out Daedalus Books, where three floors of used and rare books awaited our perusal. The prices are very reasonable and I saw many unusual and interesting titles. Dan and I bought some Adirondack history for the store and a first edition of Russell Banks' early novel "The Sweet Hereafter" for ourselves. We had a nice chat with Sandy, the affable owner, and teased him about labeling his Civil War books as The War of Yankee Aggression, as well as commiserating about how the poetry shelves suffer the most from customer's "creative reshelving" (Sandy says that comes from poets having their heads in the clouds). He advised us to be sure not to leave his city without walking around some of the surrounding historic streets so we took his suggestion and had a nice stroll around the courthouse, some churches and old hotels. One the way back to our hotel we passed by the SPCA Thrift Store, and had a nice half hour before they closed admiring their homeless kitties and interesting wares before leaving with an armload of art and music titles.

Days 4-7: Exploring
West Virginia

We left Charlottesville the next morning and began our days in West Virginia. The central attraction of this trip was our daughter’s college soccer games in the USCAA national tournament in Charleston, WV on Friday and Saturday with her Albany College of Pharmacy team, but we tacked on some other days to make this a week long vacation. 

Albany College of Pharmacy 2013  Women's Soccer Team
I must say West Virginia was a state I had never thought about visiting before. Here’s what I knew about the Mountain State before our trip: 1) Hatfield and McCoy feuds; 2) Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys from the 1999 movie “October Sky”; 3) WV is the state most likely to be used as a horror film setting; 4) self-styled “hellbillies” in the 2009 documentary “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”; 5) John Denver’s “Country Roads” hit song; 6) Appalachian poverty. 

So I did some research about the history and potential sites before we made the decision to go and found out that it is a state of great natural beauty and historical interest. After visiting and talking with the interesting folks of this great state, I am excited to visit again some day. This state has a lot of personality and its ruggedly beautiful landscape was a treat after seeing so many other American small towns gobbled up by homogenous commercial strip malls. 

After crossing the border in WV got off the highway and onto the scenic Midland Trail byway. What beautiful mountain vistas we saw as we followed the Kanawha River towards Charleston! We headed up gorgeous mountaintops, including a delightful overlook and rest stop in the middle of Hawk’s Nest State Park

and threaded our way through interesting coal, lumber and industrial towns snuggled up next to the riverside in the valleys. We had a few stops at thrift shops and convenience stores and marveled at how quickly the languid Virginia accents had given way to more twangy speech (West Virginians actually use the word “reckon”). My head was turned 180 degrees after spying a homemade sign for a cornhole tournament tacked outside of a bar in Rupert, WV and wouldn’t let Dan stop the car and turn around. A little Internet research later that night revealed this activity to be nothing more than a souped up game of beanbag toss rather than a backdoor sex orgy.

Cornhole board and bags spied at a WV antique shop.
 That night we rooted for our soccer team on top of a mountain outside of Charleston. It was windy and rainy, and the game was a hard-fought battle that ultimately got a Final Four berth for our lower-seeded Albany Panthers the next day.

We had time before that semi-final soccer game on Day 5 to explore Charleston and started off with a visit to the State Museum, located right in the Capitol complex of buildings. It was a great introduction to West Virginia history and culture and I would recommend it as a launching pad for visitors. Admission to the museum was free (just had to feed the parking meters outside) and I gained a lot of insights about different aspects of West Virginia, from coal mining and other industries, mountain music and arts, and how the state’s history was shaped. West Virginia was a slave-holding state that was carved off from Virginia and admitted to the Union during the height of the Civil War. West Virginia and Virginia seem to have many distinct differences -much like Upstate versus downstate New York- with the steep, isolating geography forging a more independent-minded, frontier mentality among West Virginians. 

I saw this interesting flavor a few times among our trip with the state seeming like a 50/50 blend of Northern (weather and terrain) and Southern state (I was never called ma'am so much in my life); progressive in some ways (Mass transit guy I met at the soccer field told me that the neighborhoods without a supermarket are added to the tourist trolley route so folks can go to the Capitol Market daily farmer's market) and conservative (nothing open Sundays til after the Baptist church lets out). 

 And man, do West Virginians take their football seriously! Friday and Saturday is devoted to high school and college football. I saw boatloads of people sporting their Mountaineer (WVU) and Thundering Herd (Marshall College) regalia over the weekend, and this was at a women's soccer tournament!  We caught lunch at a Mexican place in the town of Eleanor, WV (a New Deal homestead community named after Eleanor Roosevelt - inexplicable City motto: "Cleanest town in West Virginia") on Saturday and were thankful that we got there fifteen minutes before what seemed like the entire swarm of the George Washington High School Blue Devils football team, their parents, fans, dance team, cheerleaders and anyone who ever even looked at a Blue Devil strode in, completely outfitted in their Blue Devil team apparel.

 We scored some good WV barbecue from a roadside truck at the corner of Virginia Street W and Central Avenue in Charleston (Charleston's nickname is "Charlie West", which is kinda cool, and the city motto is "Hip, Historic, Almost Heaven", which is sorta too much of a mouthful and kind of just inscrutable) and ate in the afternoon sunshine at the riverfront amphitheatre.

Back on the mountaintop, our team lost their semi-final game to Daeman college, so it was back on the road for the two Jags the next morning of Day 5. We headed to nearby Madison, in Boone County, WV, as it was only a short drive and we wanted to see if that Wild and Wonderful White clan was up and about. They weren't in evidence, but we did score some great souvenirs at three great local thrift shops, from a lovely framed bird lithograph to some awesome WV-themed T-shirts.

Boone County Courthouse, a frequent White Clan siting spot

The afternoon was spent trekking northwest to Point Pleasant, WV to visit the Mothman Museum. I had never heard of the Mothman, but when I told my kids we would be going they were familiar with this urban legend. Back in 1966, some locals touring around an old factory nearby claimed to have seen a 6 foot tall feathery dude with glowing red eyes fly around. Then there was the disastrous Silver Bridge collapse in December 15, 1967 which claimed many lives, and folks starting talking about links between the sitings of this supposedly supernatural creature and this tragedy.

It's a kind of kitschy but amusing museum, full of yellowed newspaper clippings about the sightings of this cryptid creature (I buy the theory that the possibly inebriated couples that first spied him actually saw a sandhill crane) 

The Mothman statue is a fun photo op. I was intrigued to see his plethora of metallic chest hair. 

The museum is a fun way to spend a half hour, but we spent a lot more time in the Mason Jar Antiques Center just across the street which had great prices compared to the antique stores back home. Got a few items to strew around the house, and am kicking myself for not buying a $5 Shriner's fez when I had the chance.

A blanket which "came in contact with" Richard Gere and Debra Messing during the filming of the Mothman Prophecies". Gimme a break!
We were at the Ohio-WV border, and this was the furthest point west in our journey. We circled back east to head into Parkersburg, WV, for pampering overnight at the historic Blennerhasset Hotel.

It was by far the most luxurious and enjoyable lodging of our trip. The place is beautifully renovated and our room had every amenity: deliciously soft his and hers bathrobes, acres of pillows and comfy cotton sheets and a live jazz trio in the restaurant/lounge downstairs. It was Saturday night and the place was packed, so while it wasn't an intimate romantic dinner for us, it was an enjoyable and lively event. We lingered over a bottle of Gewurztraminer, a Caesar salad for me and a Tuna Napoleon for Dan, made specially gluten-free for him by the chef by substituting wonton skins for homemade potato chips. 

We wanted to check out the beautiful used bookstore we saw on the drive into Parkersburg the next morning, but the Trans Allegheny Bookstore, housed in a former Carnegie Library, is, alas, closed. Apparently the previous owner died and there are some estate problems, so the 500,000 books inside are just rotting away. 

Open basement window. Wonder what creatures get inside here.
From Parkersburg we traveled some highway miles to Clarksburg, where we had learned of the fabled West Virginia magical food: The Pepperoni Roll!  We stopped off the highway to take in the ornate stonework of the downtown architecture when we noticed a whole lot of cars signalling to park at the curb. I looked up and saw a small sign for Tomaro's, an Italian bakery that was noted in one of our tourist pamphlets as having the most amazing Pepperoni rolls in the state. I stood in line where the counter ladies were doing a brisk business and just had time to glance along the bakery menu. There was no hope of scoring a gluten-free version for Dan, but I sampled two of these awesome little snacks, still warm from the oven, (and only $1.40 each!) and tried to suppress my whimpers in front of Dan. 

They are not the little strombolis I had pictured in my mind, but a very soft, pillowy roll studded in the center with several rods of pepperoni. I have purchased a stick of pepperoni upon our return and will try to duplicate this WV road food awesomeness in a gluten-free semblance for my wonderful husband sometime soon. He did get a great Indian lunch further on down the road in the hilliest college town in America, Morgantown, so you don't have to feel too sorry for him.

That pretty much wraps it up for our On the Road adventures in VA and WV. I know I want to go back to West Virginia again. There were so many beautiful things to see and unusual places to explore. Yes, I saw some poverty and some faded industrial towns, but we have that too in upstate New York. Certainly I saw a lot of personality and not much of the homogenized strip mall morass that engulfs so much of the American landscape. I was amazed when I asked some of the other soccer parents that traveled to the Charleston tournament what they had done in town. Universally, they said they checked out the downtown mall or went out to dinner at Chili's or somesuch. Reminds me of the protagonist in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, who writes soothing travel reviews for people who don't want any unexpectedness in their travel plans. Can't wait to get sprung again for our next road trip!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Jalapeno!

The current selection for this round of Cook the Books, the online foodie book club, is a wonderful non-fiction narrative, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by bestselling novelist Barbara Kingsolver, husband Steven L. Hopp, and daughters Camille and Lily. We will be reading this book until November 25, 2013, after which time bloggers may submit a post that outlines their thoughts about the book and a dish that they have cooked up which is inspired by its pages.

I am one of the co-hosts of Cook the Books, and I picked this title for us all to read as I really enjoyed it when it first came out in 2007. I have long been a Kingsolver fiction fan and some of the elements in this book, like the author's interest in small family farms and an appreciation of seasonal foods, were themes in her earlier novels, especially Prodigal Summer.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the tale of one year spent diligently adhering to a food philosophy that limited items on the Kingsolver-Hopp family table to ones that were raised, grown or foraged on their own or in their local community. This deliberate food experiment started after they moved from their long-time home in Arizona to an old family farmhouse in Kentucky. I really enjoyed reading and now re-reading their forays into intensive gardening, turkey raising, cheese-making and canning, as well as Hopp's sidebars about farming practices, nutrition and biological topics, as well as Camille's wonderful recipes. The prose also relates the family's "pain" when figuring out how to cut out non-local edible delights like coffee, chocolate (the horror!) and citrus, not to mention how to deal with monotonous eating during the larder-scarce month of March.

While I have had a vegetable garden for most of my adult life and enjoy canning, freezing and drying my harvest, I am not as devout a locavore or self-reliant grower as I'd like to be, so reading this book was good motivation to get back into some canning. We have had a warm autumn here in upstate New York and only just had a hard frost last night. I had been cutting up and freezing most of my bodacious 2013 pepper harvest through the past several months, but Kingsolver's book gave me the kick in the butt to can up some pepper relish.

I only had one jalapeno pepper plant, a gift from a gardener friend, but it really pumped out the hot peppers!  I just cleaned out my pepper plants from the garden this past week and took the opportunity to make some Jalapeno Relish with these pungent little beauties and the last of my garden tomatoes.

I mostly followed this recipe though I didn't have enough cilantro from the garden to make the 2/3 cup called for in the recipe so my jalapeno relish is redder rather than greener. I also made sure to bring the relish to a boil before packing into the hot jars (omitted from the recipe in the link), which is an essential step for home canning. I had enough jalapeno harvest from this one prolific plant for two half-pint jars and a little extra which I refrigerated and which we have "relished" on pasta and roasted potatoes. The relish has lots of flavor and a nice kick, too!

I also pulled in some of the other pepper harvest before our frost this past week and got a gift of some other peppers from a friend. The sweet peppers in this rainbow photo are on the left. The ones on the right are some fire-in-the-hole hot peppers that require gloved hands and a taste for heat: Hot Paprika (small squat red ones), Padrone (green poblano type), long red cayenne, yellow Lemondrop, and those green-to-orange Paper Dragons, which are ferociously hot like habaneros.

As noted above, the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle round for Cook the Books continues through November 25, 2013. Feel free to join our book club regulars by submitting a post of your own. Details back on the Cook the Books website.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Butcher's Great Granddaughter Meets the Baker's Daughter

Guten tag! The current book selection for the awesome online foodie book club, Cook the Books, is Sarah McCoy's "The Baker's Daughter". I am a butcher's great grand-daughter, by the way, hence the title of this post, and I have a couple of his knives and the hand scars from using them to prove it. No candlestick makers in the family tree, though.

McCoy's novel takes place in Germany, during the waning years of World War II. The main heroine is Elsie Schmidt, a teenaged daughter in a hard-working family of bakers, who are in favor with a local Nazi soldier who is sweet on Elsie. While she doesn't return the ardor of his affections, she is aware of how important it is for her family to continue the relationship. She has an older sister, Hazel, who had an out-of-wedlock son with another soldier who was killed they could marry and before the baby was born. Hazel was enlisted in the Lebensborn program, a strange breeder program whose stated purpose was to produce healthy Aryan stock, but seems also to have served as a handy brothel for Nazi soldiers. Elsie shelters a runaway Jewish boy in her bedroom attic after he appears one night being hunted down by local militia.

These scenes from 1945 are interspersed with contemporary scenes in Texas, where Elsie has emigrated and is now an elderly woman. She has a German-style bakery on the Texas-Mexican border, and her back story is now sought by a dithering magazine journalist named Reba. Reba's boyfriend Riki is a U.S. Border Patrol agent, and there are some storyline parallels about ethnic intolerance during both time periods that are encompassed by the book.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and found Elsie's character and that of her paramour, Josef, very well-developed. Other characters felt like over-the-top caricatures, like the sadistic Nazi Major Gunther Kremer, or were just plain tiresome in their indecisiveness, like Reba. However, there is a wealth of detail in describing the scenes at the bakery and a poignant Kristallnacht scene, and I particularly enjoyed the author's skill in portraying the shifting relationship between Elsie and a cantakerous old bakery customer, Frau Rattelmuller.

This book was a satisfying read and there were lots of great Eastern European bakery items to contemplate (and a few recipes capping the end!). For Cook the Books, I was inspired to make a good rye bread, something which is a difficult challenge when one bakes for a celiac, as rye is one of those wheaty cousins that must be avoided. The taste and heft of a good rye bread slice (particularly when toasted) is hard to resist, so I perused my cookbooks and the Internet to find a good gluten-free rye bread recipe.

I found one at the blog Angela's Kitchen, and amazingly enough, I had all of the many required ingredients, save for anise seed. I substituted star anise instead, and the results were delicious. The bread has a complex and hearty flavor and the crumb was excellent. It was a lot of work, and required an arsenal of various flours, thickeners and gums to replace the traditional wheat and rye flours, so next time I would double the recipe and make two loaves.

A roundup of the Baker's Daughter posts will be held after tomorrow's posting deadline. Heather of Girlichef picked this savory title for our group to read and has secured the author herself, Sarah McCoy, to serve as Guest Judge to read through the submissions.

I'll be the host at the helm for the next two months at Cook the Books, where we will be reading Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle". Please feel free to join us in reading this great book and then blogging up your thoughts and a dish inspired from its pages. There's no requirements to join other than submitting your posts by the deadline of November 25, 2013.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hot Pizza Dip from a Dairy Princess

Earlier this year, the husband and I attended a local Chili Cook-off which was a great deal of fun. We both liked the white turkey chilis the best out of the local assortment and had fun schmoozing with local restaurateurs and other chili-heads at this tasty do.

The Washington County Dairy Princess was in attendance as well and in between polishing her crown and handing out samples of cheese, she was doling out dairy-packed royal recipes. One of those was for a Hot Pizza Dip, which is a bubbly, luscious layering of various cheeses and seasonings that we have made several times since.

Now that it is the season for watching those interminable Fall sports, namely football, this makes a great excuse to avoid at least one quarter of somnambulistic activity next to my sports-loving spouse by heading off to the kitchen and whipping this up. Another chunk of time can be spent eating this in a recumbent position while nodding sagely at any sports fans as they relate tedious anecdotes and statistics about various football players and teams and you dream about Spring baseball season.

Hot Pizza Dip

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 tsp. Italian seasoning (I use oregano)
1/4 tsp. garlic powder (I use at least 1/2 tsp.)
8 oz. mozzarella, shredded
4 oz. Cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup pizza sauce (I use tomato sauce and more oregano and garlic powder)
1/2 cup each red and green bell pepper, finely chopped

Combine softened cream cheese with Italian seasoning. Spread in the bottom of a nine inch glass pie plate.

Combine mozzarella and Cheddar with chopped peppers. Layer half of this mixture over cream cheese. Spread pizza sauce over that and then sprinkle remaining cheese-pepper mixture over all.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Serve warm with those big kind of tortilla chips.

I am submitting this recipe to the Four Seasons Food September Challenge, which is hosted by Delicieux and Chez Foti, two gorgeous French food blogs.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What to Do with a Sink Full of Tomatoes

What to do with a sink full of tomatoes?

There's tomato sauce of course, and lots of "over-the-sink" tomato sandwiches and Caprese Salad galore, tomato and cucumber salad, gazpacho and plain old sliced ripe tomatoes sprinkled with salt, pepper and basil slivers. Those are all great, but I also just discovered a great way to slice some up 'maters with some other late summer bounty and made a fantastic tasting salad.

Late Summer Harvest Salad

Kernels scraped from one ear cooked corn
1 medium green pepper, diced
3 large tomatoes, diced
handful of cilantro, minced
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Mix the vegetables and cilantro together and then dress with the olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper just before serving. This is a simple, lovely salad that makes its own dressing from the juices that leach out and it is very fresh and vibrant tasting. Best of all, I "shopped" for everything except the dressing ingredients right out of my own garden.

It's a simple recipe, but loaded with layers of flavor.

I am sending this post on to the Eat Seasonal Food, Fresh event, which ends August 31st. You can see what other seasonal, fresh cooks are making for this blog event at Motions and Emotions.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Continuing Cruciferous Fun: Hot Caulflower Dip!

Though most everything else in the Crispy Garden has been on the "meh" side in the Summer of 2013 with the weird and wonderful weather patterns we've had, as reported previously, the cauliflower crops has been outstanding. 

I planted a little six pack of cauliflower seedlings this Spring, hoping for 1 or 2 cauliflowers, but they have all matured and all six have been gargantuan.

I have made a lot of cauliflower curries and baked, cheesy cauliflower to use up this bounty, but then my friend Lee tipped me off to Hot Cauliflower Dip. There's cheese involved (great), spinach (awesome) and lots of lightly steamed cauliflower (fan-tabulous!) which gets blended together in the food processor and then topped with more cheese and baked. It's a great way to use up some cauli-bounty and to sneak in some veggies into the summer party spread. 

I made a big batch of this to bring to our friends' house and it was appreciatively gobbled down. I managed this quick and somewhat unglamorous snapshot before it was inhaled.

Hot Cauliflower Dip

1 small head cauliflower, broken into florets (or 1/2 of one head-sized cauliflower as above)
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup mayonnaise (I think you can even omit this - my dip was a bit oily and needed blotting)
2 fat cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
3 cups. fresh spinach leaves (I'm going to try using frozen spinach in the winter)
2 cups grated Cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Steam cauliflower until soft. Drain and let cool.

Whiz cooled cauliflower in food processor until smooth. Add in cream cheese, mayonnaise, garlic and salt and pepper. Whiz around some more until garlic is incorporated. Add spinach and whiz around again. Mix in half of grated Cheddar.

Pack into a 13.x 9 glass baking dish. Top with remaining cheese and bake in a 375 degree oven until cheese is bubbling, about 30 minutes.

Serve with your favorite chips. Makes about 10-12 servings.

I'm sending this recipe over to Weekend Herb Blogging, the weekly blog event headquartered by Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once, and guest hosted this week by my blogger buddy and Cook the Books Co-host, Simona of Briciole. Simona will have a roundup of wonderful vegetable, fruit, flower and herb recipes and blog posts after the August 22 deadline of WHB #398, so be sure to look for that.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Keeping the Wolves at Bay with Cauliflower Leaf Crisps

The current reading selection for the Cook the Books online foodie book club is M.F.K. Fisher's wonderful book, How to Cook a Wolf. Written during the World War II years, her title incorporates the metaphor of keeping the wolf of hunger and want at bay during hard economic times, rather than a literal translation as was illustrated by a certain barbeque scene in the intense 2012 lupine thriller film The Grey starring Liam Neeson.

Fisher's collection of essays about various frugal foods are as delightful to peruse as they are edifying, and I especially enjoyed the many asides and annotations that came with my revised edition of this book, ensconced in an omnibus collection of her five gastronomic titles and retitled as "The Art of Eating" (NY: Macmillan, 1989). She holds forth on great tightwad eating tips, like saving the juice from canned vegetables for a sustaining broth, how to properly prepare a wealth of egg dishes, how to make various homemade health and beauty concoctions, and many other gems, all spiced throughout with her salty, zesty, opinionated prose.

When it came time for ruminating on what I would make in celebration of this timeless tome, I consulted my trusty kitchen hound, Martha, but she was a bit put-off by the scary title, what with wolves and dogs being genetic kissing cousins. However, after I assured her that a vegetarian preparation was more to my taste for this round of Cook the Books, she agreed to help.

Despite a soaking Spring and a scorching Summer, the Crispy Kitchen Garden has been lately pumping out the produce, so we decided to cook up one of our ready-to-harvest giant cauliflowers.

This homegrown cauliflower was about half the size of my St. Bernard mix, and I wacked up the flowerets for an Indian-inspired cauliflower curry. However, my latest issue of Mother Earth News contained a short article about the edibility of cauliflower and broccoli leaves, and in the spirit of wolf banishment, I decided to experiment with them instead of consigning them to the compost heap.

The magazine article described a recipe for baking these leaves and making them into crispy snacks. To do this, one strips out the stems and then cuts up the leaves into chip-sized pieces. My cauliflower leaves were fresh-picked, so they were easily torn up by hand. I then tossed them around in a few teaspoons each of olive oil and soy sauce. They were then spread out on parchment-lined cookie sheets and popped into a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Then, I stirred them around, and baked them for another 10 minutes. They seemed to require more cooking time to make them crispy, so I baked them a further 15 minutes.

They taste very good. They are thicker and "meatier" than the kale chips I've made in a similar fashion, and have more of a pronounced cruciferous flavor. Yummy.

There's still time to join us in reading and cooking through How to Cook a Wolf. The current round's deadline is Monday, July 29. Our Cook the Book Host, Simona of Briciole will publish a roundup of delicious blog posts after this date and our gracious Guest Judge, food writer (and M.F.K. Fisher buddy) Jeannette Ferrary will pick a winner from these entries.