A Wee Problem

Oh dear, we've done it again. Someone forgot to put the lid on the butterfly jar, and here we are with a perfectly wild swarm. Whatever will we do? Hmm... might as well enjoy and invite a few little girls to lunch.

For the girls: Tiny PB&J or ham and cheese sandwiches. Very fancy, no?

We clearly survived the infestation just fine. Thanks for your concern. Now to round up all the rogue butterflies. You would not believe where some of them wound up.

And for the grown-ups,

Curried Quinoa Salad

2 cups water
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup quinoa (about 6 ounces), rinsed

Chopped items
1/2 cucumber, chopped
1 mango, cut to bit sized pieces
1/2 c walnuts, toasted and chopped

1/4 c mayo
1/2 c plain lowfat yogurt
4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp chopped garlic
1/8 tsp worcestershire sauce
juice of 1/4 lemon
1 1/2 tsp reduce-sodium soy sauce
1 Tbls red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
a pinch red pepper flakes (if you want a little heat)

4 cups fresh spinach, cleaned

1) Prepare Quinoa per directions on package, or steam like rice. Set aside to cool.
2) Add chopped items to cooled quinoa.
3) Mix all dressing ingredients together with spoon or whisk.
4) Mix half of the dressing with the quinoa salad and set the other half aside. Divide the spinach between 4 plates and top with a hefty scoop of the quinoa salad. Drizzle remaining dressing on top.


Lemon Ricotta Tart (with Berries)

Alright- I'll admit it. I like to have a little something sweet after each meal. Or with each meal. Or smack dab in the middle of the afternoon when I have nothing else to eat. To prove this point, I currently have little tiny stashes of dark chocolate hidden throughout the house. So sorry to my husband if you're discovering this for the first time right now. I still love ya. And no, I won't show you where they are, but if you ask really nicely I might go uncover a small bit for you when you're not looking.

My love for sweets translates into a lot of mad-science action in the kitchen, and this Lemon Ricotta Tart was the result of some of that play.

Lemon Ricotta Tart (with Blueberries)
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed according to directions on package
3/4 lb part skim ricotta cheese
1/4 c sugar, plus some for dusting pastry
zest and juice of 1/3 lemon
1 egg
2 cups blueberries, raspberries, blackberries or strawberries, cleaned

Mix ricotta, sugar, lemon and egg just until blended.

Place thawed pastry on parchment lined baking sheet and sprinkle remaining sugar over the top. With a knife, lightly score a 1/4 inch border around the edge of the pastry and poke a few holes in the center.

Spread the ricotta mixture evenly inside the border.

Top with berries.

Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 for remaining 25 minutes, until the ricotta is set and the pastry is nicely browned.


Stargazers Soup

Favorite recipes, like many other things in life, have a way of adapting themselves to fit in with our changing scenery. I first made a version of this soup with tiny star-shaped pasta (stelline 74) and imagined it accompanying us, piping hot in a thermous lid, as we laid on fresh-cut grass, trusty telescope by our sides, to watch the stars on a summer night. Well, that and I thought the pasta would intrigue my then two-year-old. Not so much. The pasta made the soup too starchy, and my toddler would not go near anything with star pasta or called star soup for months. Then winter came. Snow piled up copiously around the house, we began another flu season and the members of our household began a game of cold and flu tag, and I gave the soup a few tweaks, most significantly changing its name. I won't tell you what we call it, just that it is named after a highly annoying cartoon character, which seems to do the trick with the preschooler set. Its great as a baby food, as well.

I hope you enjoy it as much as we do, and if I don't get my way with the thermous this summer, maybe you can do it for me.

Stargazers Soup

3 stalks celery, chopped
3 cippolini onions, chopped
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 32 oz box chicken or vegetable broth
2 good sized carrots, chopped
1 large sweet potato or yam, chopped
1 c frozen, chopped organic spinach, thawed (don't worry about draining!)
1 16 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

1) Heat dutch oven over medium heat with Olive Oil. Add celery and onions and cook until transluscent (just a couple of minutes.) Add salt and pepper to taste.
2) Add broth, carrots, yam and spinach. Bring to boil and cook until soft (about 15 minutes.)
3) Add beans, reduce heat to medium low, and cook, covered about five minutes. Blend with immersion blender and enjoy with a nice piece of crusty bread.


Fresh from the Dairy

Of all the places I've visited, two have made an exceptionally lasting impression on my life. The first was Siberia. My summer on and near Lake Baikal was just this side of heaven and it changed the direction of my life entirely. Interestingly, it is also where I first milked a cow. It was in a tiny, dusty village with exceptionally generous people and the wiliest piglets you can imagine. We drank the milk while it was still warm. A might strange, I'll admit, but fresh as it gets.

The other is England. I am endlessly intrigued by its marriage of modern and traditional, and while all my former visits have been defined by a sense of mobile independence scurrying about on the trains, my most recent visit introduced me to a different side of Britain, and it was just what the doctor ordered. Well, that and a few odd g and ts, of course.

This visit, I stayed with several members of my family in a house in the heart of the Cotswolds. The hills were rolling, we were surrounded by livestock and distant church spires and the local pubs served local, fresh food along with glorious pints of English brew. It was a slow and simple life we led during our two week visit, making short trips to some beautiful manor houses and charming old towns, but most of all, enjoying each other and the occasional strolls through the countryside. And at the start of each new day, we enjoyed fresh eggs and milk from a local farm, and cream so thick it rolled out of the cup like molasses. Now there is a trip to celebrate. And here are a couple of recipes we enjoyed whipping up in our English kitchen:

Mom's recipe for butter:
1 cup fresh, rich milk
a pinch of salt.
Mix with whisk (or in our case, a spoon) until desired thickness

*Mom says the cream she used as a girl took about 15 minutes to whip into butter. I do not tease when I say the double cream we were using in the Cotswolds took less than a minute.

Great Wolford Eggs

1-2 Tbls butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 tomatoes, chopped
1- 2 eggs per person, depending on how hungry you all are
1 cup frozen spinach, thawed and drained (squeeze water out through dish towel)
2 Tbls fresh basil, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Heat butter or oil in large skillet and add tomatoes. Cook until tender. Meanwhile, mix eggs, spinach, basil, salt and pepper in a large liquid measuring cup and pour into the skillet. Scramble until cooked through. They should be done within 10 minutes or so.


The Perfect Cup of Joe

I may have picked the worst day ever to consider giving up coffee. It seemed like a great idea until someone in this house of mine decided the day should begin with crying and screaming at 2:15 a.m., and then of course I remembered that there was no good reason I should give up something I so thoroughly enjoy. More like love. So, with a renewed devotion, today I bring you some tips from my days as a barista for making the perfect cup of coffee (drip coffee, that is), heavily weighted, of course, by my own tastes and preference.

First things first: The beans- they must be whole. I know what you're thinking: "Okay, this is going to be one of those coffee snob posts, isn't it?" Yes, for the most part, it is, but keep in mind that my coffeemaker probably looks a lot like yours, so you have no excuse to not give this a try.

If you have a grinder at home, check the instruction book for how long you should grind them. For a pot of drip, run a blade cutter (one of those things used on nuts and herbs on which you push down the button the entire time it runs) for about 15 to 20 seconds or a burr grinder (which crushes the beans between two disks and is made specifically for coffee beans)set to medium. They also should be fresh, if you can get them that way. Try an independent roaster who roasts in small batches. These beans are less likely to taste burnt that those roasted in large batches like certain giant coffee chains I shall not name. If, like me, you don't have access to fresh beans, look for something in a small foil bag with a valve on it.

Some of you may not know what type of roast to go for, so here's a quick tip: If you don't know, start with something that says medium. The darker the roast, the stronger the flavor. French roast is pretty much the darkest there is, and to someone new to coffee or just looking for a smooth, mellow cup, it will pretty much knock you down. And, in my opinion, the light roast isn't really worth bothering with. And if you really want the flavor (and the smell), grind your beans right before you brew.

My former employer, the best coffee roaster in Atlanta, was pretty adament that a great cup of coffee needs to be brewed at a water temperature between 195 and 205 degrees F. If you have a hot water tap, you're in luck. They will generally get your water in that zone. If not, too bad. Your little coffee maker, like mine, doesn't stand a chance. Between you and me, I think we'll fare alright with our cold little cups of coffee. One thing I am a stickler for, and you should be too, is good water. Where I live, water out of the tap tastes a little funky, so I use the filtered stuff. Always. If it tastes funky by itself, it will certainly taste funky disguised as coffee.

When you're coffee is brewed, don't do like I do and let it sit there for an hour. Take at least one sip while its fresh. Now that's the stuff. Worth getting up for, right?

One last tip, and besides finding quality beans, this, I believe, is of the utmost importance. Don't mess around with skim milk or non-dairy creamers. (Have you ever read the labels on those things? Scary.) Buy yourself a carton of half and half. It makes such a luxurious cup, and once you get started you'll never look back. Add sugar if you like (I do - lots!) and if you really crave something special, whip up some flavored whipped cream. I know a fella who insists on drinking his cup with almond whipped cream every day. Wise man. (Check out my recipe for cinnamon whipped cream in the archives and substitute the cinnamon for 1/2 tsp almond extract or just about any other extract you like.)

So, try it and let me know what you think. Worth giving up the tall skim vanilla latte for?


No Mayo Tuna Salad

Simple. Tasty. Healthy. Need I say more? This recipe is inspired by a similar dish I used to get at a bistro in my old neighborhood in Atlanta, and it remains one of my favorite lunches. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

1 can chunk light tuna, drained
8 kalamata olives, roughly chopped
1 or 2 Tbls capers, drained, depending on your taste
1 Tbls lemon zest, finely chopped
1/2 tsp lemon juice, or add more to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients with a fork and serve over lettuce, in a wrap or with pita chips.