Winter Wondering

Where I belong-San Sebastian, Spain- Monte Igueldo

Where I belong-San Sebastian, Spain- atop Monte Igueldo

Hello, Friends.  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I apologize for leaving your appetites whetted with my adventures in the Basque Country  and then going MIA for a few months.  It has all seemed like a crazy dream, but the beauty is in the pictures I can finally share with you.  I almost hesitated to reveal it all for risk of losing that feeling of “being there.”  It is like a lover’s scent, tantalizing, intoxicating, so much so that you want to wrap yourself in it forever. But I find myself, on this Eve of Christmas, wanting to express my gratitude for an experience that has given me new life and new perspective.  It has taken just as long for me to develop the photos as it has for the thoughts and musings to “develop” and make their way from my heart and mind to this blank page.

Spain speaks to me at my core.  It welcomes me like a warm grandmother.  It teases me with its turquoise breezes. There is an elegance in its people.  There is a visceral sense of pride and history in its architecture.  There is love and romance in every golden lampost-lit promenade stroll.  There is an honor in cherishing family and a bond so strong from decades of passionate conquests and wars.  It is protectiveness, unmatched and unparalleled.  It is Spanish and it speaks to me.

It occurred to me that these last few years, the most important things that have been missing from my life are having a sense of belonging, belonging to a place, to someone, to something.  Despite having made a home here in Seattle these past 17 years, when I am in Spain I feel as if I am going home to a place that welcomes me each time with open arms and new adventures and only makes me long for more.  This last time was made more special still in that I was able to travel deeper into one of the most beautiful parts of Spain, the Basque Country, and meet people and explore places that were at once truly Spain, but yet familiar to my home that is the Pacific Northwest.  And so now, I find myself asking the question, “Is it time to redefine home?”

Call it a mid-life crisis, as I approach what will be my 40th year in 2014, but I feel like this may be my last shot.  I have had the awful habit of indeed living my life, staying safely “on course” but without much risk-taking or challenge that could spin my world into something completely terrifying and terrific.  I look around, as most of us are guilty of, and I see what I perceive as success in others and I want it for myself but no not of how to get there anymore.  I was once driven, passionate, wild.  Maturity tempers that.  A place like Spain awakens it in me.  And so its attraction haunts me more.

As I sit here in the dusk of Christmas Eve, with a glass of white wine reminiscent of the many txcholis I had in Spain, I dare peer into the future, at what’s behind the curtain, around the corner, what could be my next life.  It smells of the Cantabrian Sea, romance and the church bells that mark the hour instead of the watches on our wrists.  I dream of Spain and hope it waits for me.

SAN SEBASTIAN

Near Monte Urgull & La Parte Vieja

Near Monte Urgull & La Parte Vieja

Zurriola Bridge-Maria Christina Hotel

Zurriola Bridge-Maria Christina Hotel

La Parte Vieja, San Sebastian

La Parte Vieja, San Sebastian

La Concha promenade

La Concha promenade

Catedral Del Buen Pastor

Catedral Del Buen Pastor

Zaporejai, a shop for jamon Iberico afficionados

Zaporejai, a shop for jamon Iberico afficionados

Casa Urola-some of the best finds for vegetable friendly pintxos

Casa Urola-some of the best finds for vegetable friendly pintxos

"I have died and gone to heaven" hongos at Casa Urola.  I would have licked the plate if they would have let me

“I have died and gone to heaven” hongos at Casa Urola. I would have licked the plate if no one was watching.

Salt cod and padron peppers-Zeruko

Salt cod and padron peppers-Zeruko

Who does this to pickles?!!  I love the Basque!-Zeruko

Who does this to pickles?!! I love the Basque!-Zeruko

Pulpo-Cuchara De San Telmo

Pulpo-Cuchara De San Telmo

Fois not for the faint of heart-Cuchara De San Telmo

Fois not for the faint of heart-Cuchara De San Telmo

This is how you do "ham and cheese"

This is how you do “ham and cheese”

Melt-in-your-mouth salmon

Melt-in-your-mouth salmon

Cod with peppers and caramelized onions

Cod with peppers and caramelized onions

Grilled Calamari

Grilled Calamari

AMOREBIETA/ASTEI/EA/PLAYA DE LAGA/ELANTXOBE

Amorebieta

Amorebieta

La "Patata" de Amorebieta

La “Patata” de Amorebieta

Playa De Laga

Playa De Laga

Elantxobe

Elantxobe

Astei

Astei

Astei view

Astei view

Jamon Welcome

Jamon Welcome

Baby squid stuffed peppers

Baby squid stuffed peppers

Best tuna you will ever eat

Best tuna you will ever eat

AZURMENDI

Azurmendi

Azurmendi

A peek inside Azurmendi

A peek inside Azurmendi

Chef Eneko Atxa-truffled eggs cooked "inside out"

Chef Eneko Atxa-truffled eggs cooked “inside out”

Oysters, "mushroom" seaweed, tempura anenome

Oysters, “mushroom” seaweed, tempura anenome

Marinated blue fish, tomato infusion, chive butter

Marinated blue fish, tomato infusion, chive butter

The Earth, "tea service"-mushrooms, white tea, broth

The Earth, “tea service”-mushrooms, white tea, broth

Pigeon, fois "hazelnuts"

Pigeon, fois “hazelnuts”

My final wish-a handsome, talented chef making my dessert-smoked sorbet

My final wish-a handsome, talented chef making my dessert-smoked sorbet

A fine meal with friends

A fine meal with friends

Eskerrik asko

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Every so often in life, you have to shake yourself awake in order to find yourself again and set yourself back on course.   Earlier this year, when I signed up for the food photography workshop in the Basque Country, I knew it was a chance for me to reconnect with a place that had a way of rejuvenating my spirit.  I had no idea that the experience I would end up having would change my life.

Delving deeper into the Basque Country was for me the exact type of immersion I needed to see my current life in a new light.  It only took traveling a few thousand miles away to gain a little perspective.

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Originally, I intended to go to learn more about the food and culture of the area and get a few basics on improving my food photography for this blog.  What I got instead was a glimpse into a region so rich in culture, cuisine and generosity.  With Aran and Nadia as our hosts, teachers and guides, our group of 10 got a taste of what it meant to look at food as something more than just ingredients on a plate.  While we learned about camera basics and food styling, and each got to dip our toes into new waters of experimenting with our own vision and styles, we connected with each other over our life stories, our aspirations, where we’d been and where we hoped to go.  With Aran, her childhood friends, Beñat and Ainhoa, and the rolling green hills and beautiful beaches of the small towns that meandered along the Northern coast of Spain as our backdrop, I felt a sense of honor to have gotten such an intimate glimpse into this area.  It more than exceeded my expectations and was, in a word, extraordinary.

Beach near Astei

Because there’s so much more to this story, I’ll be breaking it down into a few parts and highlighting some of my favorite moments, including, yes, all of the magnificent Basque food and wine that I had the opportunity to experience.  But for now, I wanted to at least make sure that I took a moment to say, “eskerrik asko”, or thank you in Basque, to all the wonderful people who made this experience possible and for their having peeled back the veil on such a beautiful part of the world that has inspired me in more ways than they will ever truly know.

Aran-Nadia-Ainhoa

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Benat

Northern Exposure

DSC00613The last two days have been intense.  Yesterday, I got to experience first-hand the precision that goes into the artistry of lifestyle food photography.  There’s philosophy, there’s story, and then there’s just raw geometry of finding how to manipulate your surroundings to capture just exactly what you want your audience to see.  As someone who’s used to going more by instinct and feel, it was a rare glimpse into the diligence and drive that goes into achieving perfection.  It’s intimidating and fascinating all at the same time.

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After nearly six hours of moving locations, choosing props, including sets and models, grabbing our ladders, adjusting our light, we witnessed it all come together.  Playing with angles, taking overhead shots, taking advantage of the break in the rain, and then finally making the set scene come to life with movement was something I’ll never forget.  I’ve always had respect for great photographers.  Now, I hold them in even higher esteem to know the depth and scope of knowledge they possess and sheer endurance and tenacity they have to make magic unfold from their cameras.  Any artist or craftsman, no matter the tools they possess, can produce greatness.  It comes from education, repetition, personal style, region or environment.  I like that that is a common thread that has run through this workshop for me.  It gives me hope that despite my frustrations and lack of experience at the moment, I, too, will find my style just as I did after playing around with food.  It makes me actually want to dive deeper into everything in my life and find those colors and that richness that come from digging deeper, pushing myself harder when I just want to stop and being okay asking every question even if it sounds so simple.

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By afternoon, we were deep in the thick of the local Basque forest amongst rows of apple trees, a place that felt like home underneath moist, gray skies.  I felt my uneasiness with the day subside and felt like a child poking around through lichen-laced apple trees and dampening my sneakers on the soft, green grass.  Were it not for the clay-tiled roofs and the stone homes nearby, I’d have believed I was back in Seattle, smelling the end of summer, feeling the dampness of autumn closing in on me like a musty cloak.

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Evening rolled in as did we into the nearby town of Ea where the neighborhood was celebrating the festival of the fisherman.  This is the season of many festivals throughout the Basque country and they love to celebrate.  It’s much better than the 4th of July where we barbecue and fill out bellies with potato salad and hamburgers.  Here everyone dresses up, there’s dancing and parades, the young and the old celebrate together and there is a pride attached to the celebration that seems rooted in tradition and family.  There is so much joy in these celebrations and it makes me wish I could belong to a place like this.

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Letting Go and Letting In

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I’m sure there’s some deep-seated reason for why I always insist on knowing how to do something “right” the first time around, but it has never been more clear to me than today as I started my first day in the food photography workshop I signed up for in the Basque Country with James Beard food blogger nominee, Aran Goyoaga.

There is something in learning something new that is frightening, humbling and all together inspiring.  Now that I know how to work a few more buttons on my new camera, I’m feeling my mood lift a little and know, that like all new things, if I just stick with it and actually keep doing, I’ll see some progress.

I had a step aerobic instructor who used to say, you can’t just stand there if you can’t keep up with the moves, you have to keep your feet moving and eventually they just fall into place, naturally.  It’s a little like that, this photography workshop, if I just freeze and stop being inquisitive then I stay in the dark and learn nothing, but if I just keep observing, arranging things one way and moving outside the comfort of what I know then that is when the magic happens.

It’s a hard place to be, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I’m in an amazing location, surrounded by awe-inspiring beauty and awe-inspiring women.  My life is one series of semi-planned, but mostly happenstance experiences.  I don’t always know where my path is going to lead me, but I do know at least that I need to take the path.

And so I am here, open to letting go of the struggle with myself to be perfect and letting in the experience of being like a newborn, seeing things literally for the first time through a new lens.  And I like it.

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O Happy Day

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I know a lot of people who hate celebrating their birthdays.  For whatever reason, it has no special significance, bears no weight and just becomes an ordinary day in an otherwise ordinary life.

Not me.  I love every minute of it, from the morning I wake up in it, to the way the day unfolds and I get to celebrate me.  This year on my 39th birthday, I’m especially aware of looking back and seeing what a difference a year has made.

Lately, I have been keenly aware of a certain energy swirling around me, drawing people to me, making the connections that I’ve wanted to make.  A friend of mine used to call that synchronicity, when the world came together just right and you couldn’t blame it on coincidence.  I like to think I’m just where I’m supposed to be.

It was a year ago this month that I had the privilege of taking part in a remarkable experience only a chosen few will ever get to partake in.  A lot was changing in my life then, I had left a good job a few months earlier and said goodbye to people who were like family.  I took great joy in napping and jogging.  I had my heart broken by someone who was broken himself.  I started a new job, in an office, where I had to wear normal clothes again, not stretch pants and chef coats.  I was living, breathing every single minute, both the joy and the heartache and in the midst of it was Quillisascut Farm School.

It’s an amazing thing that these days one just has to utter the name Quillisascut and there is instantly a sweet spot in one’s eyes and heart about what that name represents.  For those who have been, it means a world of things, and each thing different to each person who experiences it.  To those who’ve yet to go, it means the promise of being part of a righteous place, a secret society almost, where people, animals and land meet and coexist harmoniously.  It is all of those things and more.

It was at times, raw, emotional, beautiful, strange and different.  The mind wants to always find parallels, but this was like no other experience I’d ever had before.  I slowed down and I listened.  I watched.  I learned.  I tried to get out of my head and just let the moments teach me.  Shoving my hands against the warm flesh and hide of a freshly slaughtered goat, I felt respect and amazement and not at all an ounce of cruelty or disgust.  Listening to the soft hum of bees on a warm afternoon, I felt an electricity and understood the significance of the delicate balance of nature.  Pulling out weeds in the garden, under a hot sun, I felt peace and clarity and witnessed space clearing for things to grow again.

When I left Quillisascut, I felt there was still a lot of unfinished business and restlessness in me.  Part of the reason I went was to awaken my senses to what originally brought me to take a closer look at food, and make part of my life a pitstop along the culinary highway.  I also wanted to see if I could try and answer the question about how we could make good food accessible to anyone who wanted it regardless of income, identity and class.  Particularly in Seattle, where there is an abundance of local ingredients, from fresh produce to seafood, to grains and dairy, we are among the very fortunate to call this landscape of plenty our home.  And yet, right in our very own backyards, I meet people everyday who struggle to put food on their table, nutritious food that not only feeds their hunger but nourishes their minds.  And so I struggle with this juxtaposition of bringing the two together because it’s what I know is right and what I know can change the world in a bigger way.  I don’t pretend to have the answers and if anything, Quillisascut left me asking even more.

But that’s the lesson I took away.  We can’t stop asking and we can’t stop doing.  Even though I am one person, if I sit back and let my voice go unheard, then their voices are silenced and no one gets what they need.  It has to be one foot in front of the other, one small change at a time.  It’s like I tell my participants who take our Cooking Matters classes, changing the way you see food and how you cook and eat it has to be a lifestyle, a habit, just like brushing your teeth.   It has to be something you do everyday, not just once in a while.

And so a few months ago when I got invited to speak about my Quillisascut experience for the Seattle Chefs Collaborative, I was reminded of those ideas.  How we can’t give up and we can all start somewhere, but if we never do, than the worst happens and that is that nothing happens at all and nothing will ever change.  Reflection puts the pause button on our lives so we can readjust our course if need be.

I’ve had a glorious last year and I feel that great things are ahead.  While the work is heavy and plentiful, I feel like I am again amidst a family of co workers who understand that where there is great need there must also be justice and equality.  I like being part of this new clan, even if I have to wear grown up clothes again.

What follows is a seasonal recipe taken from my cherished copy of the Chefs On The Farm cookbook put out by the real people behind Quillisascut Farm.  This is no recipe for those in a hurry.  Like the gentle pace at Quillisascut, this one requires a little time and love so it comes out just right.  The results are the reward.

ROASTED CORN AND CORNMEAL TART

tart-long

CRUST:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 TBS (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups fresh corn kernels (from about 2-3 ears)
1 TBS verjus or lemon juice
3 TBS sour cream
Kosher salt
MARINATED CHILES:
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp fresh thyme
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano
1 cup chopped fresh dill
1 tsp kosher salt
2 TBS olive oil
8 roasted poblano chiles, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
FILLING:
2 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes, sliced, salted and drained (reserve juice for another use)
3 cups (about 12 ounces) shredded Quillisascut Smoked Curado cheese or other smoked cheese
Preheat the oven to 375°.
To prepare the crust, mix together the flour, cornmeal and baking powder in a large bowl.  Cut in the butter, mixing by hand until the mixture resembles small white peas.
In a blender or food processor, puree the corn kernels, verjus or lemon juice and sour cream.  Season with salt to taste.  Combine with the butter-flour-cornmeal mixture until a dough forms (dough may be sticky).  Refrigerate 1 hour.
Roll the dough on a floured surface to a thickness of 1/4 inch, into a round about 10 inches in diameter.  Press into an 8-inch tart pan.  Refrigerate until ready to use*  You can also skip this step and prep the rest of the ingredients and then just roll out the dough and assemble the tart.
Prepare the marinade for the chiles, by mixing together the garlic, thyme, oregano, basil, salt, and oil in a glass dish.  Marinate the chiles in the mixture for 20 minutes.
To prepare the filling, layer the tomatoes, marinated chiles and the cheese in a dough-lined pan, alternating until all are used.  fold the edges of the dough over the filling edge about 1 inch, leaving the center open.  Bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the center of the tart is set.

TASTING NOTES

I’ve missed cooking with the seasons and this recipe took me right back to how this is done, simply, beautifully and deliciously.  The crust was light, the filling loaded with good flavor.  Those who got to enjoy this at the party I took it to, now have the recipe.

As much as I’m a fan of the Quillisascut cheeses, especially the smoked curado, I was at a loss to get my hands on some at the time I wanted to make this tart, so I substituted instead a blend of swiss, gruyere and smoked gouda and the results were divine.

I squeezed more of the juice out of the tomatoes before layering them into the tart shell with the rest of the ingredients and didn’t have any issues with a soggy crust.  I froze the juice into ice cube trays and will use them later in a sauce.

A FEW MOMENTS FROM THE FARM: QUILLISASCUT FARM SCHOOL, JULY 2012

Quillisascut Farm, located in Rice, WA.  Working and teaching farm for over 30 years.

Quillisascut Farm, located in Rice, WA. Working and teaching farm for over 30 years thanks to the dedication of Rick & Lora Lea Misterly.

A Welcomed Storm greeted us our first afternoon on the farm.  It was warm and smelled like the earth.  I was also almost blinded by it as I was making my way back from saying hello to the pigs.  I like to think it was a sort of baptism to wash away any perceptions or expectations I may have had and prepare me for what was yet to come.

A welcomed storm greeted us our first afternoon on the farm. It was warm and smelled like the earth. I was also almost blinded by it as I was making my way back from saying hello to the pigs. I like to think it was a sort of baptism to wash away any perceptions or expectations I may have had and prepare me for what was yet to come.

A view from the garden:  eating what we sow

A view from the garden: eating what we sow.

Butchering 101:  A lesson in humility.  An animal raised to fulfill its purpose.

Butchering 101: A lesson in humility. An animal raised to fulfill its purpose.

Using everything

Using everything

Roasted goat for dinner.  One of many beautiful meals we got to share together.

Roasted goat for dinner. One of many beautiful meals we got to share together.

Goat and pork chorizo:  where Rick told us stories about working in a cannery and we laughed as we all tried our hand at forming the links

Goat and pork chorizo: where Rick told us stories about working in a cannery and we laughed as we all tried our hand at forming the links.

Beautiful chorizo.  Saddly, we ran out of time and did not get to taste it

Beautiful chorizo. Saddly, we ran out of time and did not get to taste it.

I'm not sure which one this was, but Rick would.  They all have names.

I’m not sure which one this was, but Rick would. They all have names.

How can you not love this face?

How can you not love this face?

Thanks to the sweet pigs of Quillisascut, we were blessed with this.

Thanks to the sweet pigs of Quillisascut, we were blessed with this.

My grandmother had chickens, but not like this.  As soon as you turned them upside down they were as docile as a sloth.  I felt privileged being the last one to hold this animal.

My grandmother had chickens, but not like this. As soon as you turned them upside down they were as docile as a sloth. I felt privileged being the last one to hold this animal.

It was familiar but different.

It was familiar but different.

On a sunny afternoon while weeding, I stole a moment to find this.

On a sunny afternoon while weeding, I stole a moment to find this.

Class of July 2012: Rick & Lora Lea Misterly, Chef Karen Jurgensen back row right.
Class of July 2012: Rick & Lora Lea Misterly, Chef Kären Jurgensen back row right.

For The Love Of Fish

Mundo

The old story goes that one day, shortly after they were married, my mother decided to cook my dad a fish stew after a long, hard day working in the fields.  Hard to imagine that then my mother was still a young bride trying to find her way around a kitchen and apparently filleting her first fish.  I always wondered why my father never ate fish and this story set into motion years of detest around seafood for my dad.

As it turns out, my mother chopped up the entire fish, bones, guts and all and plopped it right into the stew.  I think if he’s ever gotten near a fish since, it’s been by accident.  And yet, this week they’ll be celebrating 56 years together, so if it wasn’t her cooking, surely my mother did something else to burrow her way into my father’s heart.

In addition to celebrating their anniversary, today I celebrate my dad, Mundo.  When I think of his name, I think of the strong man on the Mexican lotteria cards holding up the world on his shoulders.  He has weathered a life of struggle, and yet he’s always managed to set the world right again for himself and our family.  Being the youngest of seven, my dad was my world and there is a kinship we share because, as my mother likes to say, “you are your father’s daughter and you’re both so much alike.”  She’s referring to our temper, but that’s only our Latin passion for the ones we love.  We’re actually both quite mellow and wise.  That’s the way I always remember my Dad, easy and quiet until he has something important to say.  So I dedicate this next recipe from one of my other favorite men, Spanish chef José Andrés to my Dad.  Every spoonful of this stew was so delicious, I said, “mmm” all the way to the bottom of the bowl.  I think Dad would be just as pleased, if not a bit reminiscent and reluctant of other fish stews that came before.

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SUQUET DE PEIX AL ESTILO DE RAFA

FISH & POTATO STEW, RAFA STYLE

Adapted from Tapas A Taste of Spain in America by José Andrés

For the picada:

2 TBS blanched slivered almonds
1 TBS Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
1 slice sourdough bread, crust removed
1 garlic clove, peeled

For the suquet:

4 ripe roma tomatoes
1/4 cup Spanish extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
4 small red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
1/2 tsp pimentón or sweet Spanish paprika
1 TBS fresh chopped parsley
2 cups mineral water
1# cod or other mild, whitefish
1 1/2 tsp salt

Yields: Four generous servings

In a small saute pan over medium-low heat, toast almonds until light brown, about 3-4 minutes.  Remove from pan and set aside.

Add olive oil to pan and once it is hot, brown bread, about 1 minute per side or until golden brown.  Set aside.

Place garlic in a mortar and pestle or food processor and crush until you have a thick paste.  Add in the almonds and the bread.

Set picada aside.

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For the suquet, cut tomatoes in half.  Place a grater over a bowl and grate the open side of the tomato using the large holes.  Strain the grated flesh through a sieve to produce 3/4 cup of tomato puree.  Set aside.

In a large, shallow pot, combine olive oil and minced garlic over medium-low heat until the garlic “starts to look as if it’s dancing.”  That’s puro Andrés: about 20 seconds or when you can smell garlic but not see it turn brown.  Add in the tomato puree and continue cooking about 10 minutes or until it reduces to a thick sauce.  Add in the potatoes and continue cooking another 10 minutes, mixing to keep the potatoes from sticking.

Sprinkle in the paprika and parsley.  Stir for 30 seconds.  Pour in the water.  Cook for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are soft and the sauce is reduced by half.

Add the fish pieces and the salt.  Add the picada.  Simmer until the fish is cooked, about 3-5 minutes.  Serve with crusty bread.

TASTING NOTES

What exactly is “suquet” and “Rafa style?”  From what I could gather, suquet is a traditional style of Catalan casserole or stew and Rafa is the name of the eight-table restaurant in the coastal town of Rosas, Spain where they only make this stew with the freshest of fish caught that day.  No fish, no stew.  And that is how it should be.  This recipe called for 1/2# each of monkfish and rockfish.  My local fishmonger just had cod, so I did that instead.

Picada is a way of thickening using toasted bread.  It’s a great way to add heft and flavor to sauces, soups and even salads.  This picada was laced with just enough heat and depth of garlic that it permeated its way through the stew and complemented the sweet, smokey paprika perfectly.

The original recipe called for using russet potatoes.  If you do, just be sure to adjust your simmer time as they will definitely cook faster.  I liked using red potatoes because I already had some on hand and they keep their shape a little better since they are less starchy and more waxy.

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Las Mañanitas

Mom

One afternoon, when I was a kid, I told my mom that I was going to run away and go live with my grandma in Texas.  I had packed a paper bag full of my stuffed animals and figured I’d just hop one of the trains that passed right by our house every day.  Without even missing a beat, my mom called my bluff and said, “Okay, but first you’ll have to take a bath.”  I couldn’t have been more than six and that bath eventually turned into a nap.   My mother, who had dealt with six of my siblings before me, clearly knew how to outsmart her kids so she could get on with her day and her errands.  And she did it all with the patience of a saint.

Mother’s symbolize so much in our world, it’s a shame we only pick one day to celebrate them.  I was reminded today of all the mother’s I’ve known that are now gone, and how lucky I am to still be able to pick up the phone and have mine answer, even if it’s only to tell me how she didn’t win anything at bingo or what she ate at the last party she got invited to.  This morning when I called her to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, she told me about the special mass the local church gave in honor of all the mothers, and how she was given flowers and blessed by the priest and serenaded with a traditional Mexican song, “Las Mañanitas.”  It’s a song of celebration and every time I hear it I get goosebumps and lose it.  It is a small tribute to a woman of immeasurable courage.  My mother has endured a lot in her life and yet she continues to have the patience and strength of a saint.

I spent the last six years putting out nice meals for everyone else’s mother, that this year, I decided to create a little something in honor of my own.  Here’s to a little lady with a feisty spirit, my Mom.

TORTILLA ESPAÑOLA

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INGREDIENTS

4 large red potatoes
1 large yellow onion
1 large green bell pepper
6 eggs
1 tsp salt
Olive oil

Yields: 8 servings

Peel red potatoes.  Cut into quarters, lengthwise.  Cut evenly into 1/4″ slices and place in a bowl.  Set aside.

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Cut bell pepper and onion into medium dice.

In a non-stick pan, over medium heat, add potatoes and enough olive oil (about two cups) to cover them.  When I learned this recipe from a Spanish chef in Barcelona, the other Americans in class nearly fell out of their seats.  That’s a lot of oil!  Yes, but the potatoes only sit in it for as long as it takes to lightly simmer them or, until you can easily slide the tip of a knife through them, about 10-15 minutes on medium-low heat.  Be careful not to brown any of the potatoes.  Once that’s done, you can drain them from the oil and set them aside.

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Using some of the same oil, saute until slightly tender, the green pepper and onion.  Add to the potatoes.

Season all the vegetables with salt and then add in the scrambled eggs.

Add about 2 TBS of the remaining olive oil to the pan and pour in the potato-egg mixture.  Once the rim of the tortilla has set, take a small spatula and go around the sides of the pan to make sure it doesn’t stick.  When it releases from the sides, you know it’s ready to flip.

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Take a plate that’s slightly larger than your pan and place it on top of the pan.  Use your dominant or strongest hand to hold the plate firmly again the pan so it doesn’t slip.  If it’s your first try, do this over a sink.  With a hot pad, grip the handle of the pan with your other hand, as close to where it actually connects to the pan and, quickly, in one motion, flip the tortilla onto the plate.  Set it down and pour another 1 TBS of oil back into the pan.  Carefully slide the tortilla from the front end of the plate, back into the pan.  Take your spatula and tuck the edges under all the way around.  Cook until the tortilla feels firm, about 10 minutes over medium-low heat.

When it’s done, set a plate on top of the pan again and invert the tortilla onto the  plate.

TASTING NOTES

I must have eaten at least a dozen tortillas in Spain the last time I visited.  Some had tasty things in them like chorizo or smoked fish.  Some had beautifully thin slices of potato that made up most of the tortilla and had very little egg.  They tasted great room temperature but you always got asked if you wanted it warmed up which brought out more of the flavors.  They’re really quite easy to make once you get the hang of it and the right potato to egg ratio.  I’ve made some with smoked salmon, dill and smoked gouda or potato, piquillo peppers and smoked paprika.

If you have a saute pan that’s deep enough, you can also toss in the onions and green peppers in the same pan with the simmering potatoes when they’re about halfway cooked.  This will give your tortilla a little more flavor than cooking the other vegetables separately.

To reheat, simply microwave for about 2-3 minutes depending on thickness or place in the oven until warmed through.

To My Sister, With Love

That's not dirt on my face, it's chocolate cake batter.

Yes, that’s my sister pretending to be The Fonze, and yes, that is chocolate on my face.

After the recent loss of  my cousin Becky, I’ve been thinking of that special bond that exists between sisters.  Or maybe it’s just a bond that exists between women, because you know how one another hurts, how one another loves and what it takes to bring a smile to one another’s faces.  I count myself lucky to be surrounded by strong, brave, and resilient women.  Some are friends, some are family, and one who has defied all odds is my older sister, Olga.

Growing up as the second of only two girls in my family’s brood of boys, I looked up to my older sister for all that she did and all that she was.  I watched her put on make up and remember how she smelled of face powder, violet mints and Aquanet.  When one of my brother’s “accidentally” swung a baseball bat into my eye, I remember how she and I spent the afternoon drawing Bic blue pen stick figures depicting how I’d get back at him.  She dressed me up like Boy George for Halloween, gave me my first taste of Old Milwaukee beer from Dad’s stash in the basement fridge and we’d listen to Prince on her radio in the summer while I gazed up at the posters of Rick Springfield on her wall.

And then she started dating boys and everything changed.  I continued to grow up in her shadow and just when I realized I had lost my best friend, it was too late.  I moved with my parents to Texas and she stayed behind in Milwaukee.  A lot changed, we went years without talking, but that bond between sisters never fades no matter what happens and we eventually reconnected.  With her help, I made it through college and started down my own path.

Now, all these years later, we’ve seen each other briefly and I’ve watched her from afar overcome great challenges from divorce, to raising five children, all the while moving herself forward with a job, school and making a life for herself and her children.  I share her story often with friends, strangers, because I’m proud of my sister for who she has become.  We may be hundreds of miles apart, but we are still connected by love, by forgiveness, by the joy in knowing we are sisters.  As she celebrates her birthday this coming Wednesday, I wanted to honor her with more than a greeting card or flowers.  So Sis, here’s to you.  I miss you, I love you, I wish you bastante blessings on your birthday.

Margarita cake

MARGARITA CAKE

Adapted from The North End Italian Cookbook by Marguerite DiMino Buonopane

Thank God there’s at least one good baker in my family and that would be my sister who’s developed her craft for the last 16 years working at one of Milwaukee’s oldest Polish bakeries.  I thought this recipe was especially fitting to celebrate her as she is the better baker, loves all things Italian and will appreciate it when I say I think Mrs. Buonopane was a few margarita pitchers into the day when she sat down to write out this recipe.  Being somewhat crafty in the kitchen, I had to make several adjustments to end up with this sponge cake-like dessert with a little mexican chocolate frosting, cause, well, we’re Mexican, not Italian.

INGREDIENTS

For the cake:

5 eggs separated
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 TBS lemon juice
1/4 tsp almond extract
3 TBS potato flour
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the frosting:

1/2 round Abuelita or similar Mexican chocolate
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 TBS rum
6 TBS water

This recipe is my first foray into gluten free baking and, as I mentioned, I’m not a great baker so this was a two-time attempt until I got something that I think resembled the intent of this recipe.  Also, the instructions were a bit disjointed so I created my own which I think yielded better results.

Preheat oven to 375°.

In  large bowl, beat egg yolks with an electric mixture on low speed until thick and lemon colored.  Add sugar, lemon juice and almond extract and beat for five minutes.  Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until they form a soft peak.  Fold into the egg yolk mixture.

Slowly sprinkle in the potato flour.  This recipe originally called for 1/2 cup of potato flour but that just turned into a dry mess so I decided to cut back the amount and sprinkle it into all the wet ingredients.

Grease a 10″ square cake pan or do as I did and butter and coat with more powdered sugar a springform pan.  Bake on the center rack for about 22 minutes or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.  Pour vanilla extract over cake and let cool.

Over a double boiler, melt Mexican chocolate, powdered sugar, water and rum.  Add cocoa powder.  Frosting will be a bit gritty from the Mexican chocolate but it’s pretty tasty.  Drizzle or spread over cooled cake.

TASTING NOTES

This was a nice, light little cake.  I think it probably would have benefited from some fruit or more citrus but overall it was relatively easy and really moist.

potato flour

Note to you all and to self, potato flour is like sand and wads up like it when dumped into a small amount of liquid.  Thanks for that lesson, Mrs. Buonopane.  I also came across this product at my local Ballard Market.  I’m a fan of sweet potatoes so I may do a little experimenting with it some time.  I learned potato flour can also be used to thicken sauces and soups which is a no brainer.  Since I’m lactose intolerant, I used left over cooked potatoes to thicken up soups at the restaurant.  Maybe not as rich as using heavy cream but still quite delicious.

New Traditions

For the last five years I’ve spent every holiday with my work family at the restaurant, putting out buffets to hoards of people and then coming home and crashing and not even remembering the significance of the holiday or having any nearby family to celebrate with. Being on my feet all day didn’t exactly leave me enthusiastic about coming home and cooking for a few more hours.

Easter Sunday in Seattle

But this year, I woke up to a gorgeous, sunny Seattle day and decided to start a new Easter tradition. I wasn’t going to waste empty calories on cheap Easter chocolate, so I took a stroll down to the waterfront with the craving of a pain au chocolate I couldn’t ignore. Luckily, Seattle’s Pike Place Market was open, despite the Jesus and bunny festivities, and I scored not just that chocolate croissant, but also a delectable palmier, the world’s most deceptively simple but sinful butter and sugar heart-shaped cookie.

Why couldn’t I start new traditions now that my life has entered this new chapter of independent bliss?  So instead of Easter ham and jelly beans, I’ve dusted off my Around the World in 450 Recipes book and finally cooked something from it. Marrakesh Pizza is a stuffed bread that is lightly toasted, almost panini style, on a griddle. Skipping the recommendation to serve it with a boring arugula and black olive salad, I picked through my pantry and fridge and came up with one of my own best recipes yet: Gingered chickpeas with spinach, tomato, mint and meyer lemon. Yes, it’s true that I’ve never been to Morocco, but sometimes all one has to do to transport themselves to another place is close your eyes and smell the spices and imagine yourself in the center of a crowded and colorful Marrakesh market.

Here’s to making your own new traditions.  Happy Easter, Everyone!

Easter pizza and chickpeas

MARRAKESH PIZZA
Adapted from Around the World in 450 Recipes

INGREDIENTS
For the dough:
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp salt
1 2/3 cup warm water

For the filling:
1 small onion, chopped fine
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 TBS chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 TBS chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
2 oz (about 4 1/2 TBS) vegetable shortening or vegetable suet if you can find it
1 1/2 oz grated Cheddar cheese

First prepare the yeast.  Place 2/3 cup warm tap water in a small bowl, stir in the sugar and then sprinkle with the yeast.  Stir until dissolved.  Set aside in a warm place for about 10  minutes or until frothy.

Next, in a small bowl, mix together the diced onions, tomatoes, parsley, cilantro, paprika, cumin, cheese and vegetable shortening.  Season with salt, mix well to incorporate and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix both flours, salt and the yeast mixture.  Add another cup of warm water until the dough comes together.  Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes or until the dough is firm and elastic.  I use the technique of lightly flouring my hands to keep the dough from sticking to them and add a dusting of flour to the work surface until the dough is good enough to handle.  The moisture in your kitchen will have a lot to do with how much flour you need to add until the dough is workable enough so it doesn’t stick to the work surface.

Cut the dough into four pieces, cover the three you aren’t working with a linen towel and roll the other into a 8×12″ rectangle.  Scoop about a 1/2 cup of the filling mixture down the center of the dough and flatten out with your hands.

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When your done, fold the dough into thirds so you end up with a 8×4″ rectangle.  Roll this second rectangle out so that you end up with the 8×12″ size again.  Set this filled dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet or silpat mat lined baking sheet.  Repeat this process with the remaining dough.  Cover each pizza with an oil sprayed sheet of clear cling wrap and let rise for about an hour.

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Over medium heat, place a cast iron grill pan or skillet that has been oiled or is well seasoned.  Use a fork to prick the dough about six times and brush with a little melted butter.  When pan is hot, carefully lift dough and place into grill pan.  Cook for about 5 minutes per side. Prick the second side and also brush with more melted butter.  Remove from pan and let cool before cutting into wedges.

CHICKPEA SALAD

I was thinking slow-simmered, ginger and tomato curried chickpeas but then realized I didn’t have enough tomatoes but did have some left over fragrant meyer lemons and fresh ginger that needed to be saved.  So here’s how it goes:

1 can chickpeas, drained
1 onion, finely diced
1 knob of fresh ginger, finely diced
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
3 cups fresh spinach, julienned
4 TBS finely chopped mint
Juice and zest of 4 meyer lemons
1 tsp salt
2 TBS olive oil

Saute onions in olive oil.  Cook over medium heat until slightly brown and softened.  Add ginger and cook for about 3 minutes.  Add chickpeas, tomatoes, salt, lemon zest, juice.  Cook for another 3 minutes.  Add spinach until slightly wilted.  Add mint at the end.  Serve hot or chill.

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TASTING NOTES

I can only imagine how Marrakesh pizza came to be.  It seems like something that is rustic enough to be everyday food and versatile enough to accommodate a host of fillings.  Maybe it’s something served from a street cart vendor, wrapped in crinkly paper and dusted with a little paprika or sumac.  My only complaint about this soft and lofty bread was that I wanted more filling.  I loved the grilled flavor imparted by cooking it on my grill pan, and the gorgeous outer crust that formed and crunched as you bit into it.  I think I’d double the filling mixture next time and go a little heavier on it for each pizza.

My chickpea salad was a winner.  I served it cold which brought out more of the fragrant meyer lemon flavor.  I suspect chilling it overnight will make it that much more flavorful tomorrow morning.  Too bad there’s only a few spoonfuls left.

Sweetness In Surrender

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My yoga teacher is always reminding us about the sweetness in allowing one’s self to surrender to the moment, to whatever aches and pains the body is presenting, to whatever grief or strife the mind is imposing upon us.  As painful or as difficult as it can feel, it’s only temporary because when we allow ourselves that moment of surrender, there eventually follows a quiet moment of grace and peace, and it can be sweet if we just give it room to enter and invite it to come in.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to write about the recent passing of two very special women in my life.  One was taken too quickly, a life half-lived,  and the other had lived long enough to bury a husband and meet her one and only grandchild.  Both were strong, generous, caring women who left very different impressions on my life.  Becky was my beautiful cousin, as much a sister as my own, who had a whisper of a laugh, a gentle soul and a way of connecting with you even if it had been 10 years since the last time you saw each other.  Verna came into my life after I met the man who would be the reason I moved to Seattle.  She was a complicated woman who had worn many hats, that of wife, mother, friend, and like many women of her generation, I think she strove and struggled to excel at each one of those roles.  She was like any mother with a son, at times I think she thanked me for loving him, at times I think she hated me for leaving him.  And yet, despite all that, I would still get the occasional Christmas card with her kind words in her neat cursive handwriting reminding me that she still considered me a small part of her world.

It’s hard saying goodbye to someone when you can’t see their faces one last time or hear their voices the way you remembered them.  It’s hard making sense of the fact that the place they held in this world is now vacant.  The whole space and time of their experiences, their past and future, all of it gone forever.  A period at the end of a final sentence.  No other opportunity for rewrites or new thoughts.  Breathing in the quiet lessens the sorrow, but I wonder if this is just the dress rehearsal.  When loss gets a little closer to your doorstep, you can’t help but see the world in a different light.

Verna loved to bake and like any mom she shared a few of her treasured recipes with me years ago.  This next recipe was one of her favorites.  Shoo Fly Pie is a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch pie, sweetened from molasses, hence the name, “Shoo Fly Pie” as the sugar tended to attract the flies and one had to “shoo” them away.  The sweet smell of this warm pie baking in my oven this evening put a smile on my face, one which has been hard to maintain with all this recent grief and sadness.  Sometimes that sweetness in surrender can be as easy as putting on your apron and baking a Shoo Fly Pie.

SHOO FLY PIE
Adapted from Verna Both’s recipe

1 1/2 cups molasses
1 1/2 cups hot water (tap water around 100°)
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups flour
1 cup light brown sugar
4 TBS shortening
1/2 tsp salt
2 unbaked pie shells

Yields:  2-9 inch pies

Preheat the oven to 400°.  Move the top oven rack to the middle of the oven.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, shortening, brown sugar and salt with a fork as is making pie dough.  Set aside.

In a smaller bowl, mix together molasses, hot water and baking soda.  Mixture will foam.

Mix the molasses mixture into the flour mixture, 1/3 of the mixture at a time until all is well incorporated.  Divide the batter into the two pie shells.

Place the filled pie shells onto a baking sheet and into the oven on the middle rack.  Bake for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool about 20 minutes.

IN MEMORIAM:

Becky

Becky Garza

“Always and forever surrounded by love”

Verna Both 3-8-13

Verna Both

“May you rest in your eternal garden and watch your flowers grow”