Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A GOULISH FEAST


“Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright!”

“THE WOLF MAN”
Universal Pictures, 1941


Halloween 2008

“Part of our collective consciousness”
Estimates vary, but Americans celebrating this holiday add up to big business and it seems each year to be increasingly more popular. The way we celebrate Halloween has evolved over the years as well. It is not even a very old a tradition in the US, although it may seem like it has always been part of our collective consciousness.

“It’s just a good party”
Much of the impetus came with Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. Along with many other customs, they brought their celebration of All Hallows Eve, which in turn was an evolution of the Celtic Festival of the Dying Year also known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Not that modern Trick or Treaters care that much about the history because for most of us, it’s just a good party.

“We love to be scared”
We love to be scared or at least to pretend to be. Bram Stoker published his masterpiece Dracula, in 1897, and it has never been out of print. It was the classic Gothic horror films from Universal Pictures that instilled the images that many of us still associate with Halloween, or at least those of us of a certain age.

“Approach the feast with the proper dread”
Halloween candy sales are second only to Christmas and although trick or treating for candy remains a privilege for the young, there is no reason we all can’t enjoy a dinner party with a spooky theme. Surely, no one has excelled more than Martha Stewart at making Halloween into a modern celebration, a fact that a quick trip to her website will confirm. However, there are so many possible inspirations, planning a grown-up Halloween party is an activity that anyone can enjoy. Decorating is a blast and creepy music is a must. Here is an Avanti Savoia take on the theme. Go to the trouble of writing out your menu in a creative way so that your guests can approach the feast with the proper dread!

EYEBALL HIGHBALLS
(Vodka Martinis garnished with half a stuffed olive
frozen in circular shaped ice tray “cubes”)
TOADSKINS AND POND SLIME
(Indian crisp bread with cilantro/mint sauce)
WITCHES FINGERS AND CRYPT OOZE
(Finger shaped pretzels with blue cheese dip)
BEACH SPIDER SOUP
(Crab bisque)
DEVILED BAT
(Grilled Cornish game hens or quail with backbones removed)
STUFFED TOADSTOOLS WITH A MOST UNPLEASANT SAUCE
(Baked mushrooms with an orange Hollandaise sauce)
JACK O’LANTERN PIE
(Pumpkin pie topped with a cut out pastry face- see following recipe)




Preparing a Fresh Pumpkin
Canned pumpkin can be successfully used to make this pie. However, during the holidays when pumpkins are easily obtainable, it is a snap to prepare puree from a fresh pumpkin using the method described here. Select a fresh, firm pumpkin free from blemishes. One small pumpkin will do nicely for two or three recipes. Wash pumpkin with warm water and dry thoroughly. Lightly oil pumpkin and place it on a baking tray. Bake in 350 degree oven for one hour. Pumpkin is ready when it is soft to the touch. Remove tray from oven and allow to cool. When cooling, the pumpkin will begin to collapse. When it’s cool enough to handle carefully remove the stem and peel away the browned skin, which should come off quite easily. Split open the pumpkin and scoop out seeds and stringy fibers. Seeds may be saved for roasting. Cut the remaining flesh into chunks and finely puree in food processor. Can be prepared 2 or 3 days in advance.

Pie Crust Pastry
Pastry for one 9 inch pie

2 cups sifted all purpose flour
¼ cup butter
¼ cup shortening
4-5 Tblsp. ice water
1 egg, beaten

1. Measure sifted flour and combine with butter in food processor fitted with steel blade. Blend for a short time until mixture resembles cornmeal.
2. Add shortening and blend again until mixture looks like small peas.
3. With the food processor running, add ice water a tablespoon at a time until the dough forms a ball. Remove dough from food processor, wrap in plastic wrap and let dough rest in the refrigerator at least for an hour, although it can be prepared to this point and kept for several days ahead.
4. When ready to bake pie, roll out about 2/3 of the prepared dough with rolling pin and fit into 9 inch pie pan. Crimp edges, brush lightly with beaten egg and allow pastry to rest in refrigerator for 15 or 20 minutes before baking. Save enough dough to roll out and cut triangles for eyes and nose, also cut out a wide smile, all of which is placed on top of the pie before baking to make the “Jack O’lantern” face.


Ingredients for Pumpkin Filling
1 ½ cups fresh pumpkin puree or one 14&1/2 oz. canned pumpkin
1 Tblsp. flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsps. Ground Ginger #32065*
½ tsp. freshly grated Nutmeg #32080*
½ tsp. ground Allspice #32071*
2 tsps. Ground Cinnamon #32031
½ tsp Sel de Mer ( fine ) #35021*
1 1/3 cup half and half
2 eggs and 1 egg yolk, slightly beaten

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees

1. Combine all ingredients except eggs and refrigerate for a couple of hours. When ready to bake the pie, fold eggs into filling and pour into the pastry lined pie pan. Top with pastry face, gently place on metal cookie tray and bake in lower third of oven.

2. Bake pie for 15 minutes at 425 degrees, reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for another 35 to 40 minutes until done. Serve hot or room temperature with sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

THE GARDEN THING

"A bumper crop of weeds"

MAY ‘08

My wife, Gail and I planted our first garden together in the summer of 1996. We were very excited about it and spent a great deal of time (for the next eleven years) building our soil, tending, harvesting and enjoying. Some years we managed three different seasonal plantings and Gail canned with a passion. Last spring we both faced some health issues and in truth, we were also just really tired of the hard work and daily responsibility. So, for over a year we allowed the garden to “lay fallow” and produce a bumper crop of weeds.

"A reason to escape going to the gym"

However, a good break seems to have been very beneficial, at least for us and maybe for our garden. We have in years past, cultivated thirty two-12 foot rows. Work that was mostly accomplished using hand tools and a lot of effort. I saw the hard labor as a reason to escape going to the gym and there was a real satisfaction from the work and the edible results. This year we have decided that we would invest in some better machinery including a fine new tiller. There is still plenty of exercise involved and it is certainly more practical. We have also cut down on the amount of tilling required by cultivating only the rows in which we plant.

"Certain patterns have emerged"

I have been interested to note the upsurge of interest in gardens this year partly due to the downturn in the economy. I suppose that perhaps money can be saved on groceries by growing your own, but it is not a freebie- not by a long shot. Over our previous years of experience certain patterns have emerged. A half acre of corn proved to be a 3 year exercise in frustration due to the damage from storms, droughts and marauding raccoons. At the rate at which two people can enjoy fresh corn, it is easier and more economical to just purchase it from some local farmers. Any financial savings by way of a garden will be welcome of course, but for us it is really about the fantastic flavor, quality and purity.

We are planting the crops that we have had the best experience with in the past in terms of maintenance and productivity. This year that means tomatoes, peppers, beans, okra, lettuce, onions, greens, cucumbers, eggplants, herbs and flowers.

"That vision of the bounty of beautiful produce"
JUNE ‘08

Gardens always start out as an exercise in some kind of faith. Faith that those seeds will sprout, the seedlings will grow, the bugs and diseases will give you a break and that there will be enough sunlight and rain. How else could anyone put so much work and effort into a project if there wasn’t a great deal of faith that it will succeed? Then there is that vision of the bounty of beautiful produce. Now, after a month or so this particular year’s challenges began to be apparent, as I guess they are every year.

First, we seem to have a problem with our seed crops sprouting, especially the flowers and some of the herbs. Even old reliables like sunflowers are coming up with big gaps or simply not coming up at all. The pepper sets are small and growing very slowly. Everything else seems slow and a little stunted… Hmmm… to replant or not…Hmm.The lettuces and onions are delicious.

We have plenty of fresh basil, 24 feet of in fact. We call it Vito’s Basil Patch in honor of our Italian Partner at Avanti Savoia, Vito De Carolis. There are tomatoes, cukes and okra coming along and there is still hope. I don’t think one can garden without hope.

"RAIN "

It is dry and even though I have been watering, it really is not the same as rain. I am beginning to worry about our crop of wild raspberries. There are plenty of buds but some of the leaves are withering and that means that they are thirsty! We usually harvest around the 4th of July, but for that to happen…well, you know-RAIN. We depend on well water at Cabbage Creek (that’s what we named our little mini-farm) for drinking and living as well as watering the garden. Our well has never run out but I monitor the springs and creek all year just to get a clue about the water table level and it’s not looking good. If we reach a certain point I will be very reluctant to use any more well water than necessary.

Our next issue is sunlight- in the year and a half since we have had a garden, I’m wondering if the surrounding trees have grown just enough to make shade a problem. Removing a bunch of big branches might do it, but that will require some outside assistance.

JULY ‘08

I’ve been monitoring the amount of sunlight in the garden very carefully and I’m now convinced that there is just not quite enough. We are harvesting beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, lettuce, onions, cilantro and basil. But the amount of the harvest is not what it should be by this time of the season. I’m beginning to doubt whether or not there will be any peppers at all.

"Berry pickin’ party"

The rains have come however, and just in time. Not enough to really erase our rainfall deficit, but enough to help out the garden and bring on a decent harvest of raspberries. We look for them to be ripe the first part of July each year and sure enough, they were right on time. We had a “berry pickin’ party” a couple of days after the 4th of July with some friends and family. Baskets full of ripe raspberries are a beautiful sight. Although, I found myself down with a back ache, we did manage a good harvest and a good time. As is our tradition, we enjoyed fresh raspberry Margaritas with our guests.

As the month has slipped by, my priority in the garden has been weeding and mulching.
The weeds not only steal moisture and nourishment, they also block precious sunlight from the less tall plants. The mulching is indispensable in preventing more weed growth and the conservation of moisture along the plant rows.

Finally, the pepper plants are blooming and putting on more foliage, we will probably get a few anyway, but I doubt that they will be prolific. Some seasons we have been almost overwhelmed with the abundance of peppers. Like the old clichĂ©, “feast or famine” this is going to be a thin year for peppers.

AUGUST ‘08
"All the hard work pays off (or sometimes not) "

Summer is half over and the hottest and most humid time of the year is here. In the northern hemisphere this time has been known as “the dog days of summer”, since the time of the Egyptians. As miserable a time as it can be, it is also the heart of the harvest time in our garden as well as the time for fall planting. We already have a row of mixed greens from which we have just now started harvesting, but within the last few days we will have planted radishes, turnips, spinach and a row of lettuce. Each year we usually plant a progression of lettuces over the season, so when one row plays out we have a new one ready to supply us with fresh salads. This is the time that all the hard work pays off (or sometimes not) and that we get to enjoy real garden bounty! We have also been fortunate in as much as the rains have come just in time the last few weeks.

"Okra"

My wife Gail has been busy caning. Beans, pickles and a particularly southern specialty, pickled okra. Okra was brought to America from Africa (some say Ethiopia, actually) and cultivation quickly spread all over the south. Besides being pickled, fresh okra is also enjoyed fried, steamed, braised, boiled and perhaps it is best known as an ingredient in some gumbos. Okra is a food that most people either love or hate. Okra does produce a viscous substance when cooked that is useful as a thickener, although some folks find it “slimy” and reject it on that basis alone. If you have access to the pods when they are very small (about 3 inches) they are delicious and less slimy when lightly steamed and served with Hollandaise sauce.

In just the last few days it is clear that the beans and cukes are on their last leg as expected this time of year. It makes the last of them even “sweeter”, knowing that their time is about over. But as one vegetable fades and takes its final bow, another fills its place. In this case our first good “mess” of mixed greens has arrived and they are excellent.

"Amaranth"

Also, even though I have not yet mentioned it, we have been harvesting and eating Amaranth greens all summer. Amaranth was once considered a weed and in practical terms, in our garden it still is- albeit a delicious and very nutritious one. We first planted it 6 or 7 years ago as a novelty and then discovered just how adapt it is in returning each year. It grows, well like a weed. But instead of just removing it from where it pops up, we eat it. Very similar in flavor and texture to spinach and interchangeable in any recipe calling for spinach, which is a good thing considering that we will probably never be able to get rid of it.

SEPTEMBER ‘08
"The garden is not going to be overgrown this year"

We are thankful that our well water has remained dependable, because we had only one significant rain during the whole month of August. As I have already noted, the 2008 season has not been our most prolific garden but still satisfying enough. Our fall crops are developing nicely, better actually than our spring plantings and the promise of fall is right around the corner. I’m already beginning to think about turning under spent rows and building the soil over the winter. No matter what we decide to plant next spring, the garden is not going to be overgrown this year.


"Like tattered curtains in an old abandoned house"

Now, it is the last few days of summer and although hardly the end of the garden, everything has changed. The formerly lush cucumber vines are pale and very dead. They flutter in the breeze like tattered curtains in an old abandoned house. In the next day or two I will pull them up and discard them. The okra has stopped producing entirely, but to my surprise the Half White Runner beans have still been making, as are the tomatoes. At long last, the peppers are finally doing great. The basil will fade soon, even though we have kept it well tended and enjoyed it often. We will probably freeze some, but it just isn’t the same as fresh.

"Moon flowers "

We are still enjoying several varieties of cutting flowers and a particular pleasure for us has been the moon flowers (Ipomoea alba). If you don’t know this beautiful ornamental, you should. In our region it is grown as an annual and blooms in the evening, so as to be pollinated by the moth population. Huge white blossoms on trailing vines makes for an impressive showing, but they have no food use and are in fact, poisonous.

"THE AUTUMN TRANSITION "

With the summer season ended, we now begin to weigh the benefits of our garden versus the drawbacks. First, the costs- as I have noted, gardening is not a free lunch, but it is a big lunch! Even if our produce was not in huge amounts, there was still plenty to eat and enough for limited canning. I’m not really sure that my wife would have found time for a monster canning season anyway.

"Committed to growing our garden organically"

Then there is the quality, which is excellent, but as with anything organic not perfectly symmetrical or without blemishes. We are committed to growing our garden organically. To us, that means growing without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Going “green” in this sense also means less polluted soil, groundwater, rivers, streams, and creeks. In years past I have noted with alarm the increasing “bloom” of algae in our own Cabbage Creek from the wash off of chemical fertilizers from other farms further upstream. It also means less dependence on commercial produce that has to be trucked in resulting in the use of more fossil fuels.

Another very important piece of this picture is composting! We save most kitchen scraps (except flesh and bones) for the compost pile. We actually have two 10’ X 10’ pits in which we dump our scraps along with other yard waste. We harvest the composted matter from each pit alternatively and work it into our soil. This method not only provides an excellent alternative to commercial fertilizers but makes our garbage much less offensive.
Sitting in a shaded spot…sipping a little wine
Perhaps less tangible, but still very valuable to us is the simple pleasure we receive from just working the soil, tending our crops and just spending time together outside in such a beautiful setting. Some of my best memories of our gardening experience involve sitting in a shaded spot at the end of a day sipping a little wine and talking quietly with my wife Gail.

"Garden journaling"

Will we do it again next year? Absolutely! Although this post is (finally) ending here, I have been so inspired by the garden journaling experience that I plan to continue writing about it each month. I’m looking forward to sharing that collection of thoughts with you again in the early spring of 2009.

The salads of “Cabbage Creek” have long been a favorite of ours and our guests. Access to the wonderful extra virgin olive oils, balsamic and wine vinegars and other seasonings from Avanti Savoia only enhances the prospects. A salad bowl with fresh baby lettuces is always welcome with any number of variations based on this simple vinaigrette dressing.

Basic American Vinaigrette
Yields about 1 cup
Ingredients: (* available at Avanti Savoia.com)
½ cup *Red (#25001) or *White (#25002) Wine Vinegar by Claudio Rosso
2 tsp. Sel Gris Velvet sea salt* #35049
1 Tblsp. freshly ground black peppercorn* #32000
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced and mashed
½ tsp. sweet paprika* #32100
1 Tblsp. Dijon mustard
4 to 6 Tblsps. Avanti Savoia extra virgin olive oil* #10090

In a small bowl, combine salt and vinegar and beat well.
Add pepper, garlic, paprika, and Dijon. Mix well.
Next, beat in oil until smooth and toss with salad.
Do note that this is an American version, not classic Italian Vinaigrette. If you should wish to be a little more authentically Italian, try Don Vito’s Classic Italian Vinaigrette recipe from our August 12, 2008 post entitled “A Conversation Between Cooks.” The vinaigrette should not be made until just before using and the salad should not be dressed until ready to serve.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

AN AVANTI SAVOIA BIRTHDAY PARTY


Cool Food for a Hot Celebration



It is a nice thing to enjoy the company of your co-workers. Ben Slocum, the young president of Avanti Savoia is one of those enjoyable people. I consider Ben to be a computer wizard, although I’m sure that he would quickly disagree. In the almost two years that I have been Avanti’s Chef Consultant, I have spent many hours working with Ben and have grown to like and respect him very much.
Computer illiterate meets cyberspace guru
Ben has become my cyberspace guru. I think it is fair to say that at the onset of my employment, I was a computer illiterate. It has been through Ben’s patient and expert instruction that I have (at least to a limited degree) joined communications in the 21st century.

This is a great time for Ben. He graduated from Tusculum College in 2004 with a degree in Business Administration and a MBA from the University of Tennessee in ’06 and now, he is the president of Avanti Savoia Imports. He is also a big sports fan, having played soccer in both high school and college. Somehow, he still finds time to be a volunteer soccer coach at the local high school.


The perfect excuse to celebrate

Other exciting news in Ben’s life is the recent purchase of a new home and his upcoming marriage to his dynamite fiancĂ©e, Erin. Ben’s recent 27th birthday was the perfect excuse (as though we needed one) to celebrate with my employer and friend. It was on a recent hot summer’s evening during a dramatic cloudburst that we gathered for the occasion.

The weather was much too hot for elaborate cooking at the party, so we decided on a cold three course menu that was mostly prepared ahead. The menu relied on our garden and a number of our good Avanti Savoia products and hopefully might suggest some party ideas of your own. Doug and Kathy Slocum (Ben’s parents) graciously hosted the party and provided some great vinos.

The Wines
Walter Hansel Winery Russian River Chardonnay ‘05
Siduri Russian River Pinot Noir ‘03
Tasmania Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon ‘01

The Menu
(*available at Avanti Savoia, http://www.avantisavoia.com/)

Starters
Endive leaves stuffed with Pimiento*(Spanish Sweet Peppers #34500) Cheddar Cheese
Choux Paste puffs filled with White Tuna Salad*(Albo White Tuna Fillets#70010)
Fried Pappadums (Indian crisp bread) with Podina (cilantro/mint) sauce

Main Courses
Fresh Garden Salad (hand picked from our garden the morning of the Party)
Served with Chunky Tomato Balsamic*(Giusti Gold Medal #20007) Vinaigrette
(For this Vinaigrette recipe, see our July 25 ’08 post, “In Love with the Love Apple”)
Pasta Salad *(Tortiglione #60030) with Shrimp and Toasted Pecan Pesto
Layered Fruit Bowl of Watermelon, Blueberries and Oranges with
Gail’s Poppy Seed Dressing

Dessert
Double Mocha Chocolate Pound Cake (recipe to follow) with
Chocolate Buttercream *( #50015 Castagna Extra Fonente) and Wild Raspberry Coulis
Served with Bonny Doon Vineyard Framboise (Raspberry Dessert Wine)


DOUBLE MOCHA CHOCOLATE POUND CAKE with CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Baking Time: 60 to 70 minutes
Makes one 9” by 5” Loaf Cake
Ingredients: (*Available at Avanti Savoia, http://www.avantisavoia.com/)
Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees and grease and flour loaf pan.

2 oz. dark chocolate, *(Castagna Extra Fonente, #50015) coarsely chopped
2 tsp. instant coffee powder
1 cup very strong hot coffee
½ cup (one stick) butter, unsalted
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs, room temp.
2 cups all purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking soda
Pinch of salt
½ cup sour cream
Recipe:
Combine chocolate and instant coffee in a small bowl and add hot coffee. Set aside and allow to cool.
Cream butter, vanilla extract and sugar. Beat very well.
Add eggs and again beat very well.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. At low speed in mixer, add dry ingredients and mix until just smooth- do not over mix.
Add sour cream and again mix slightly.
Add cooled chocolate until the batter is just mixed. Pour into prepared pan and bake 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow cake to cool in pan for about 10 to 15 minutes and remove from pan. Ice with Chocolate Buttercream when completely cool.

CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM ICING
Ingredients:
7 oz. or two bars of dark chocolate,*(Castagna Extra Fondente #50015) coarsely chopped
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 eggs, room temp.
¼ cup cocoa powder *(Red Venezuelan Cocoa Powder #50120)
1 tsp. instant coffee powder
1 Tblsp.Bourbon
Pinch of salt
Recipe:
Melt the chocolate in a small bowl place over a pan of hot water.
Cream butter and sugar, adding sugar a little at a time. Add vanilla and beat at high speed for 3 or 4 minutes until mixture becomes very pale. Scrape down sides of bowl as necessary.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating very well after addition, then add cocoa.
Blend together instant coffee, Bourbon and salt. Beat one more time until blended.
Place Buttercream in refrigerator for a few minutes to firm it up. Ice cooled cake and place cake in refrigerator until about 30 minutes before serving.

RASPBERRY COULIS
Did you know? Coulis is a cooking term for a puree or sauce. It can be either sweet or savory, such as this sweet dessert Coulis or savory as in a tomato Coulis. There is plenty of room here for improvisation and making your own calls. For instance the amount of sugar in this recipe depends on the tartness of the particular raspberries used. Any number of flavor enhancers can also be used, such as a squeeze of lemon, lime or orange, a splash of complimentary liquor or even a pinch of salt. The important thing is not cover up the natural taste of the raspberries. So, in this recipe we will give you a very basic outline with which you can come with your own version of a delicious dessert sauce. Please note that other fruits can be substituted for raspberries.

Ingredients:
2 to 3 pints raspberries (fresh or frozen)
1 ½ cup sugar
¼ cup Chambord or other raspberry liqueur
Recipe:
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
Strain through a fine mesh sieve and taste for a balance of flavor- adjust according to your own judgment. Also, make a call concerning the consistency of the Coulis, if it is not quite thick enough, the strained sauce can be reduced a bit more.
Chill Coulis in the refrigerator for at least an hour. When ready to serve pour a small pool on your serving plate and lay a slice of the pound cake in the middle. If you really want to gild the Lily, add a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream.

Happy Birthday buddy!


NEW: Visit VitosCiao.com, an exciting new interactive forum in which Avanti Savoia’s legendary Italian partner shares his astounding knowledge of gourmet cooking and eating. Buon Appetito!