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A Grain of Salt: School Days

I know it’s been almost a week since Taste of the Nation, but I had to wait until now to post so I could calm down and organize my thoughts just a tad. And yes, it really did take that long. For such a small city, New Haven has a scarily good food scene – in my thoroughly unbiased opinion, it’s way better per capita than New York’s. So a night of running wildly between tables and tables of the city’s best food? You can’t even begin to comprehend what that kind of thing does to my mind.

 

Our table in setup mode. When we had such noble intentions of keeping things organized ;)

 

It’s a little sick, I know, but we started planning this year’s table at Taste of the Nation 2011. We decided to play up the fact that we’re a school, so we divided the table up into three sections: Chemistry, complete with beakers, dry ice, and Turkish Mint Lemonade…

 

I tried to capture a full rack but we just couldn't keep it on the shelves. Though a scary number of people refused it because it wasn't alcoholic. Oy vey.

 

European History, featuring the many cookbooks of Europe and Penne with Saffron Cream, Peas and Pancetta…

 

Pasta teaches you about Europe, no question about it

 

And Environmental Science, for which we made three kinds of Chocolate Bark – Zingiber Cranbaca (Cranberries, Pistachios and Crystalized Ginger), Lavandula Salis (Lavender, Almond, Apricot and Sea Salt) and Potatochipus Dulcis (Potato Chip, Pretzel and Dulce de Leche).

 

Clockwise from Left: little wooden cones for our bark samples; envi sci bird with eggs made out of gum (yes, since you asked, somebody did ask if they could eat one eat one), and a sampling of chocolate barks

 

I know, right? We’re just too clever for our own good. Anyway, last year, we were a bit disorganized and unwittingly overambitious and we got to Woolsey Hall, where the event is held, about a minute before it started. This year we were determined not to let that happen again. So instead we were the first people there! As mom went to get the food and Isabella, I set up our table and spied on everyone else setting up theirs. And I got to make friends with all the other chefs. Everyone had way too much fun.

 

Volunteers putting bags together for us fancy shmancy chefs. Free extra large t-shirt :D You know you're jealous.

 

From Plan B Burger Bar. Can you even believe how beautiful? Fun fact – Plan B was going to throw all this away, but we saved it and gave it to one of the volunteers who took it to feed her goat ;)

 

I love love LOVE the guys of Box 63 :D

 

Flowers from Thali & Oaxaca (by which I mean flowers and a watermelon, but really what's the dif?)

 

Then everybody arrived, and the highlight of my year began. Duff went on stage to greet everyone (yes sir, that’s a name drop) and told everyone to donate money and also “get wasted” (classy). And then we set about giving out food, as dad brought us a steady supply of the best of the room (before things quieted down and we got to go exploring later). Highlights included Foie Gras with Milk-Honey Cream and Cranberries, and also an incredible Duck Pastrami Ruben from Bella Bella Gourmet, Biscotti from Sono Baking Company, Donuts with Chocolate-Bacon Glaze from Box 63 and Bailey Hazen Blue Cheese with Dried Figs from Caseus. Oh and this Butterscotch Pudding with Dulce de Leche, Homemade Marshmallows and Sea Salt from Heirloom. I don’t even like Butterscotch and this was amazing.

 

You don't even understand how much I don't like butterscotch. But seriously, so amazing.

 

Sadly all good things must come to an end. Nine o’clock came and it was time to pack up. Though naturally, Isabella and I pounced on Duff (I did it again!) at the last minute to make sure he tried our test tube lemonade, which said was “really, really good.” Which is not quite up to last year’s “Damn…” but it was the end of the night, so it’ll do ;) We’re still devouring the leftovers, and while we’d love to share them with you in person, we can’t because you’re not here. So instead we’re going to spend the next week showering you with recipes, starting now with the Mint Lemonade. Also please read below to learn more about Share our Strength, and make a donation if you can!

 

 

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Share our Strength, an amazing organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America. Through programs like Cooking Matters, the Great American Bake Sale and, of course, Taste of the Nation, Share our Strength raises awareness (and, more importantly, money) to feed children in local communities. We’re lucky enough to cook at High School in the Community, a school in one of New Haven’s more impoverished areas, where Chef Cheryl Barbara told us that many of her kids only eat the lunch they get at school, because there’s not enough food for them at home for breakfast or dinner. (Cheryl herself makes sure the kids get balanced, nutritious meals at school, sends kids home with non-perishables if she knows they don’t have enough to eat at school, and sets up a food distribution center from her van to make sure her kids get enough to eat during the summer. Isn’t that so cool? Don’t you wish you were more like her?)

Anyway, Taste of the Nation events are held all over the country, and feature the best chefs and mixologists of the area. 100% of money raised from ticket sales and donations stays right in the area it’s raised, so local chefs are helping local kids. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if there’s an event in your area, go to it. And click on the picture below to make a donation!

 

Click to go to the donation page!

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Click for Printable Version!

 

Fig Solemnly Swears that it’s Up to No Good (or Fig Distillery Presents: Home Brewed Butterbeer)

When I was eight, my family took a road trip to Maine, and forced me, against my will, to bring all four Harry Potter books with me. I was sure I would hate them, because I kind of figured they’d be like video games or pokemon – playground nuisances best left to the boys. As an aspiring fairy princess, even at eight, I wouldn’t touch anything any boy liked, but I was an insufferable bookworm, so I agreed to try them anyway. By the end of the week, the fairy princess plans had fallen by the wayside – being a witch was so much cooler.

 

 

I don’t remember much normal stuff from that trip to Maine, but I can still clearly picture my ever-patient family watching as I made potions from ocean water and wands from old sticks, and listening (they’re such good people) as I divined their futures and read them excerpts, faithfully mispronouncing everybody’s names (most notably Hermoyne and Professor McNoggle). My love for the books was such that, upon finishing the fourth book and realizing there was nowhere else to go, I simply turned back to the first page and began it again. Eight cycles later my family forced me, against my will, to put the Harry Potter books back on the shelves until the midnight release, three years later, of Book 5.

 

 

But of course, nothing has haunted and taunted me so much as the elusive flavor of butterbeer. The moment it made its first appearance in book three, my heart was on a mission to recreate it. It’s a challenge food bloggers and theme parks have taken up again and again but to no significant avail (it’s very hard to measure up to something that doesn’t exist). I’ve encountered cream sodas and creamsicles, butterscotch slushies and an alluring apple cider float.

 

 

But frustratingly, none of these met the basic requirements for a butterbeer. So as I was ordering tickets for the midnight premier (hehe) and trying to figure out the most effective way to channel my freak-out energy, I realized I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. I grabbed Isabella and we made a list of what little information we had to go on. And here’s what we came up with:

– It’s called butterbeer, which is made of the words butter and beer
– It can be served warm or cold (cold is typically bottled)
– JK Rowling said that she imagines it to taste “a little bit like a less sickly butterscotch” (She also said, interestingly and awesomely, that it couldn’t contain corn syrup)
– It contains enough alcohol to intoxicate house elves, but not 13-year-olds
– It’s not a slushie

 

 

We really can’t blame Universal for getting it wrong – they couldn’t use any alcohol, and they didn’t want to leave out the lactose intolerant by putting butter in it. But Isabella is lactose intolerant too and she said it absolutely needed butter (duh). So we decided to make a toffee base, which is pretty much what “less sickly butterscotch” means, and then we added a little vanilla extract to deepen the flavor, and some cream for smoothness. The cream also made the perfect foamy top when we added a bit of seltzer to fizz it up. As for alcohol, vanilla extract is made with bourbon and our miniscule quantities may get a house elf wasted, but us… not so much.

 

 

We warmed up the toffee, mixed in some cream, poured the seltzer on top, took a sip, and knew at once (after four or five tweakings) that we had butterbeer as JK meant it. Our recipe comes in hot and cold varieties – hot is creamy and smooth, cold is fizzy, foamier, and a little less sweet. Of course, cold doesn’t warm you up the same way, but it makes a beautiful crown of foam when you add the seltzer (beautiful accident). We’re probably heretics for saying this, but we both liked that one way better.

 

So make yourself a nice hot/cool mug of butterbeer as you’re gearing up to go see this movie, getting ready for a long discussion about just how good it was (incredible), or just getting ready to make some mischief. The series may technically be over, but we can rest assured knowing it will always live on in our hearts, our bookshelves and our tastebuds.

Also, just for the record, this has about much cream as a crème brulée, so please drink responsibly.

Toffee Syrup

1 cup dark brown sugar plus 4 tablespoons
2/3 cup water plus 1 tablespoon
1 stick butter
1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Mix 4 tablespoons brown sugar with 1 tablespoon water and microwave for 30 seconds-1 minute until a syrup is formed.
2. In a medium-small saucepan, combine 1 cup dark brown sugar with butter and syrup. Heat over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and the mixture bubbles a bit.
3. Add 2/3 cup water and vanilla extract. Gently boil for about 10 minutes, until mixture begins to thicken and gets syrupy.
4. Remove from heat. This is also awesome on vanilla ice cream, just for the record.

Butterbeer

Toffee syrup
Heavy Cream
Seltzer (the fizzier the better)

Hot Variation
A little sweet for me, but reminiscent of the warming, Book 3 butterbeer

Mix 2-3 tbsp toffee syrup with 6 tbsp heavy cream and microwave for 1 minute. Fill rest of mug with seltzer and enjoy :)

Cold variation
Creamy, cool and delectably foamy, this is the perfect summer dessert drink

Mix 4 tbsp toffee syrup with 6 tbsp cool heavy cream, whisking together with a fork. Pour in the seltzer while still whisking with the fork. Enjoy :)

Strawberry Flats Forever

One of the challenging things about cooking for large crowds is learning to order the right amount of food to feed, say, 300 people, a talent you’d certainly learn quickly in any restaurant kitchen or you’d go out of business.

 

There used to be a lot more where these came from... but my daughters ate them all.

 

But since my joy in life comes from teaching others to cook and I don’t own a restaurant (although I think about opening one all the time), I haven’t quite gotten that skill down. Even if I had it down, it’s really unlikely I would manage to order just the right amount. It’s in my genes to make too much food. It’s the Mediterranean in me – watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding and you’ll understand my views on feeding a crowd. The Romanians on my father’s side were just the same: there was never such thing as too much. If anyone left a family gathering growing up without being totally stuffed, that meant the mothers, aunts and grandmothers in the kitchen didn’t do their job. I’m the same way.

 

Try this at home.

 

So as per usual when I was planning for a cooking demonstration at New Haven’s Wooster Square Market last week, our hands-down favorite open air farmer’s market in our area, I ordered way too many organic strawberries to accompany the amazing vanilla-almond custard Gabrielle adeptly made before the crowd.

 

Strawberries in water - our accidental art piece. People tried very hard to steal these.

 

When the day was over, we had a flat and a half of extra just-picked, perfectly ripe, sweet, bright-red, wonderfully imperfect organic strawberries. Mark brought the girls down to the market to make an emergency extension cord run (long story) and stayed until we were done with our demo. And when I wondered out loud what we should with so many strawberries that wouldn’t last for days the way supermarket strawberries do, my husband just said two wonderful words: Strawberry Margaritas.

 

Perfect.  Mark never uses many words, but what he says always matters. And that was certainly true on Saturday.

 

I always tell the girls – and they’ve heard it so many times growing up it’s practically in their DNA – that most things in life worth experiencing – having children, a great career, friendships – require hard work and dedication. But on rare occasion that isn’t really true. Sometimes miniscule effort can bring pure joy in a ridiculously short period of time. Strawberry margaritas are like that. And the amazing thing is that you don’t have to buy Tezon Añejo to get that joy, unless of course you want to be beyond overjoyed in which case, go ahead, buy the top shelf stuff. But for us it was a warm lazy Saturday afternoon and I didn’t feel like buying great tequila, so I used what we had in the house, which was entry-level.

 

Jose Cuervo... cheap, but seriously sufficient.

 

I’ll give you the specific recipe, but it is really better to remember the simple ratio for margaritas. You’ll want to be able to do this at the drop of a hat. Think thirds: one third a cup each of tequila, triple sec, and lime juice* in the blender. It’s that simple.

 

 

This is almost everything that goes into them.

 

Add a tablespoon or two of sugar if you have a really sweet tooth (otherwise leave it out) and ½ cup of ice if you want them to be slightly less strong… so you don’t get too too lazy afterwards.

 

Just seconds away...

 

Blend well and add a cup or so of ice, and voila! the perfect, simple margarita.

 

So pretty... and it tastes so much better.

 

So sit back and relax. Enjoy the fruits of your minor labor the way Mark did on Father’s day as he sipped perfection in a glass. Cheers!

 

Colander of Strawberries

 

 

*It’s summer, a time to relax, so I won’t tell you why fresh lime juice is better. I’m sure you know. But if your choice in margarita-making is between the horrible mix that comes in a eerie green jug, or making fresh margaritas following this recipe using lime juice from a bottle instead of fresh-squeezed, we’ll look the other way because these margaritas will still be so much better than using ready-made brew and really not much more effort.  Don’t worry, we do it too.

 

Strawberry Margaritas

1/3 cup triple sec
1/3 cup tequila
1/3 cup lime juice
1 ½ cups fresh, preferably fresh picked organic strawberries
½ cup ice (optional)

Place all ingredients in a blender and mix on high for 30 seconds, or until thoroughly blended. Serve straight or on the rocks, depending on whether you added ice to the blender.  Feel free to double or triple the recipe depending on your thirst and size of the crowd!

Indian Summer

We’ve had these twelve mangoes lying around the test kitchen for days now, which were off limits because Mom was going to use them to make mango soup. But they were getting ripe and I was getting impatient, and while the weather here isn’t exactly warm (at all) it’s going to be soon (I hope) and I knew that someday soon I would need to be refreshed and it would just stink if I let the opportunity to develop a perfect mango lassi recipe pass me by.

 

 

So I pulled out my trusty blender and got to work. There are several difficulties to successfully pulling off a mango lassi. The first is the mango. Many recipes call for Alphonso Mango Pulp, a pre-sweetened puree that you can buy on Amazon or at Indian Supermarkets. This is certainly the most authentic way to go about doing  things, and it’s made with super-flavorful Alphonso mangoes, that only grow in India. But I opted out for several reasons. First of all, I had twelve ripe mangoes sitting in my kitchen. Second, canned Alphonso mangoes are kind of hard to get, and really expensive if you do have to buy them online. And since I would never wish expense anyone (remember, I’m a college student), I decided to go with fresh. To mimic the sweetened puree, and maximize mangoey-ness, I mashed the mangoes first, to release the juices, and then mixed them with a little bit of sugar (but not too much) to intensify their flavor but not sweeten them too much. It worked perfectly.

 

Then I had to think about the yogurt. A bunch of recipes swear by goat yogurt, which I find a bit suspect. But I tried it anyway, and frankly, even if it were more authentic (which it’s not) it doesn’t taste that different from cow yogurt – just a bit more like goat cheese. It’s delicious, but it’s also much runnier than regular yogurt, so it hurts the lassi’s texture. Regular yogurt, on the other hand, passed both flavor and texture tests.

Finally I had to consider what other ingredients they might need. Some recipes call for only mango and yogurt, several call for cardamom and many others call for milk. I made one with just mango and yogurt. It tasted delicious – like a fantastic mango smoothie. But it didn’t taste like a lassi. I tried adding the cardamom – also delicious, and decidedly Indian, but definitely not a lassi. I decided to try one last time, eliminating the cardamom and adding a cup of milk. It was perfect. It was tangy, mangoey and creamy – everything a lassi should be.

 

 

Rest assured this recipe has been meticulously tested and adjusted to taste just like it would at your favorite restaurant – we would never stand for sloppy imitations. These are super healthy, and super easy to make. And they’ll be perfect for keeping you cool when, any day now, summer shows up.

 

Mango Lassi
Serves 2-3… or 1 ;-)

2 cups mango in 1-inch cubes
1 tsp sugar
1-1.5 cups yogurt (less yogurt will taste more mangoey, which I prefer, but more will taste a bit more authentic)
1 cup milk

1. Mash mangoes in a large bowl, and stir in sugar. Let stand for 20-30 minutes. There should be around 1.5 cups of puree.
2. Pour mangoes, yogurt and milk into blender. Blend until completely smooth. I recommend going on your blender’s highest setting, because otherwise the mangoes can end up stringy, which is gross.
3. Pour into glasses and try not to drink all of them yourself.

{note – for an exotic and delicious twist, add a pinch of ground cardamom}

Fig Travels: The Deep South

I’ve traveled to France, the Mecca of haute cuisine, many times and I didn’t think there could never be another regional food that would ever satisfy me as much as a perfectly cooked steak au poivre and a good glass of Bordeaux wine. Our road food trip to the Deep South was probably one of the last places I thought my stubborn belief system would be rattled, but I’ve been humbled.

French cuisine is still of course dear to me, but now I know how utterly fantastic, and complicated, real southern food is. Down-to-earth Southern fried chicken is not simple at all: we’re still perfecting the art of duplicating the texture, taste, and even the color. In fact, we could cook a le creuset filled with beef bourguignon faster. The same goes for so many other southern treasures we sampled. The biscuits from The Loveless Café in Nashville, TN are so buttery, rich and yet airy, they rival the best croissants anywhere. We’re not sure they can be replicated, although we’ll let you know if we succeed.

Clockwise from top left: Fried Okra, Nashville, TN; Sign at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House, Lynchburg, TN; Basket of cornbread, Lynchburg, TN.

 

On our southern food odyssey, we also learned that barbeque ribs and pulled pork as we previously knew them, are oversimplified. The variations and interpretation of great barbecue are almost endless. Some places even offer barbecue nachos. Even in the epicenter of barbeque, they are still reinventing it every year at the annual Memphis in May barbeque world championship. The same is true for Cajun cooking; the possibilities and interpretations of local favorites – etoufee, gumbo, bisque and the countless versions of “blonde” and “dark” rouxs – would stun your taste buds.

Clockwise from top left: Crawfish pie, Breaux Bridge, LA; Bicycle street scene, New Orleans, LA; Beignet Machine at Cafe du Monde, New Orleans, LA; Francesca enjoying a beignet, New Orleans, LA.

Non-natives usually think of chicken and pork dishes first, but the variety of southern seafood dishes also blew us away. The catfish from the Mississippi Delta is succulently sweet and juicy, but our favorite local seafood specialty turned out to be oysters; we had oysters fried, raw and even, charbroiled. Oysters Rockefeller was invented it the Deep South but you haven’t had an oyster, really, until you’ve had one on the grill.

It is hard to figure out just what make southern food so mouth-watering and addictive, but one thing I noticed is that Southern cooks are not afraid of abundant flavor and seasoning. We never needed the salt and pepper shakers. There were unexpected ingredients along the way too, like Jack Daniels in fudge pie or copious amounts of turmeric in some of the ribs. But whatever the surprising ingredient was, it was always perfectly balanced.

Clockwise from top left: Rice at Rendezvous, Memphis, TN; Barbeque sauce at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN; Ribs at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN.

 

For the next few posts, prepare yourself a nice glass of sweet tea – we’re going to chronicle our travels, and along the way, we will give you the recipes to create some of these southern gems for yourself.

Sweet Tea

6-7 Bags Orange Pekoe Tea (If you can find Luzianne brand at your grocery store, use that. It’s a perfect blend of Orange Pekoe and Black Pekoe. Here in New England it’s hard to find, so we use Twinings’s which is delicious too.)
3/4 Cup Sugar
11 1/2 cups of water
Ice

  1. Put 1 1/2 cups of water in a small pan and bring to boil
  2. With water still boiling add tea bags and let gently boil for 1 minute
  3. Turn off stove and remove tea from heat
  4. Add sugar to a large pitcher
  5. Pour one cup of water into tea concentrate to cool it down slightly (otherwise the sugar will burn)
  6. Pour tea into pitcher over sugar and stir until all sugar is dissolved
  7. Add remaining 9 cups of water and stir well.
  8. Put ice in glasses, pour in tea and enjoy.

About Gabrielle

I’m Gabrielle, college freshman, and daughter of the wonderful Heide Lang. Food has been my biggest passion from a very young age – as a toddler I would tremble when Mom and Dad brought home pizza, and I would keep eating hot salsa despite the tears running down my cheeks. I’ve matured a little in the past fifteen or so years, but I’ve really just transferred my enthusiasm to more acceptable eighteen-year-old expression styles. I’ll eat anything but bugs, olives and cilantro. My favorite cuisines are Indian, because it’s vibrant, French, because it bursts with smooth, elegant flavor, and Southern because it’s the coziest food in the world.

When I’m not doing homework, I’m almost certainly cooking or eating something. My newest habit, one about which my friends tease me mercilessly, is pie invention (I currently have a banana pudding pie in the works. I’ll post the recipe as soon as I get it perfect), like Keri Russell in Waitress. Almost everything I know about cooking I learned from my mom, and refined through cooking contests with Isabella, my 13-year old sister. I love to make everything, from pots de crème to homemade gnocchi to Thai curry to Southern sweet tea.

I’m only eighteen, so I have less to say about how food, for example, greatly affected my marriage, but I, like my mom (and the rest of my family) am willing to go to extreme lengths for food. My parents didn’t stop their culinary adventures when my sisters and I were born. In recent years, we took a three hour detour to Arcachon, France just to sample the oysters from the famed oyster shacks, and more recently we ate two dinners – one at 3:00 and one at 7:00 – our last night in Nashville so we could stuff ourselves silly at two famed local establishments.

I have to sign off (it’s dinner time) but I’ll leave you with a recipe for my favorite late-night-study latte. It’s called a London Fog, and it’s made with Earl Grey tea rather than coffee. I find Earl Grey is enough to keep me up, but lets me fall asleep when I finish my English paper. On the other hand, if you can’t fall asleep, make it with decaf and the warm milk will have you asleep in a blink of an eye. Click for the recipe.

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