Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pairing for a Perfect Moment

I'm preparing a pot of tea and making popovers. Blueberry popovers. Not too long ago, I made popovers for the first time -unadorned then of any fruit or fancy additions- and was surprised at how easy it was. Simple ingredients whisked together in a bowl yielded the most delightfully airy pastries. Retrieving them from the oven, I gobbled half a dozen before realizing what I was doing. I did, however, manage to save several for E.

E and I eat large bowlfuls of blueberries nightly when they are in season. I see them heaped in plastic containers, arranged neatly at the grocery store. I eagerly fill my cart with the luscious berries, having only hazy ideas of what to do with them once back home. However, I'm not worried - there may be a limit to the number of blueberries I can consume straight out of a box. But as long as there are eggs, milk, and sugar in the house to enfold these berries into a batter -along with a working oven- I have no fear of the fruit going to waste. So yes, popovers enhanced by the addition of fresh blueberries to create a tea-pairing for my pot of the Ensi Spring Needles.

I clear the kitchen table to create space for tea. Magazines, books, and pens go on a nearby shelf. The table is now bare, like a canvas awaiting its first brushstroke of paint. A daub of nature. That's what it needs. I go out to the backyard and pick some flowers - delicate white petals surrounded by green leaves- and place the sprig into a small vase. My little attempt at ikebana -preserving the verisimilitude of the natural world indoors. I set my table for tea: a spray of flowers, the full teapot on its trivet, and my cup. The blinds are half-drawn, filtering a soft sunlight, and the cats are napping in the next room. I feel a gentle solitude and pour tea into my cup.

Recipe for Blueberry Popovers
(adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman)
1 Tbs of melted butter
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 pint of blueberries
1) Preheat oven to 425F. Butter muffin tins and place in oven.
2) Beat together eggs, milk, butter, sugar, and salt. Beat in flour, a little at a time. Take the muffin tins out of the oven. Scatter blueberries on the bottoms of the tins and fill halfway with batter. Place in oven and bake for 15 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350F and bake for another 15 minutes until the popovers are puffy and browned. Do not check them while they are baking in the oven. Serve hot.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In the Country

We left the city behind and drove westward. The beginning of a week-long vacation in the country. We were going to cram as much biking as we could into five and a half days in western Wisconsin - known for its multitudes of well-tended bike trails. We biked on graveled trails, converted from old railroad tracks, sometimes catching a glimpse of the Mississippi. But most of the time it was miles and miles of verdant foliage that we saw. Prairie lands and wildflowers surrounded us. White and black butterflies flew alongside us from time to time. But it was the dragonflies who were always flitting ahead of us, appearing out of nowhere to shepherd us along. They were our ever-solicitous companions.

We returned to a cabin on a farm after a day of biking. Ruby, the affectionate dog, greeted us, nuzzling his nose and licking us with abandon. The barn cat, a gray tabbly E nicknamed Twiggy because of her scrawniness, stood as sentinel on our porch. I thought of our two cats, now at home and well-fed, and their lives of relative ease compared to that of Ruby's.

In the mornings, we awakened to the lowing of the milk cows coming from the barn. We walked the few yards between our cabin and the main farmhouse where we were greeted by Ole and Janice, our hosts, standing in the doorway of their home. They led us to our seats at the oaken dining table where a hearty breakfast awaited us. One of cheese frittata, golden waffles still piping hot, and homemade cinnamon buns. Ole, a farmer all his life, talked feelingly of a cow he saw maltreated by a neighboring farmer. His eyes flashed, indignant, at the cruelty directed at a fellow sentient being.

After breakfast we got on our bikes and cycled for hours, finally stopping at the village of Elroy for lunch. We walked into the only coffeehouse in town - a Christian-themed one, with announcements of local Christian fellowship meetings tacked on the doorway and on the walls inside. The day was blindingly sunny and we were glad to come indoors.

I peered at the menu behind the counter, my eyes adjusting to the relative dimness inside, and was delighted to see a list of loose-leaf teas. An unexpected and welcome find at this oasis in the country. We sat down with our grilled cheese sandwiches and cups of tea. My Assam never tasted so good -dark, brisk, and strong, made more perfect by its serendipity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clafoutis Redux

It was still baking weather when I had to turn on the heater at night -even if it's well into June. I told myself this when an itch to make yet another clafoutis arose. A bowl of ripe plums sat on my kitchen counter, tantalizing me with its fragrance. A bite into one revealed a heady tartness. Plums perfect for baking, I thought. A bit of sugar would tame their mouth-puckering tartness- there was no need for me to tamper with a perfectly good fruit by doing much more.

So working with the most basic ingredients from my larder, a radiantly puffy plum clafoutis emerged from my oven an hour later.

With it still warm, I cut a slice for E and myself and brewed us a pot of the Silver Needles. This fine white tea really paired well with the clafoutis. The Silver Needles had a satisfyingly sweet smokiness that juxtaposed neatly with the subtle sweetness of my dessert.
So subtle was it that the plum clafoutis naturally appeared as my breakfast the next day. This was not your sugar-heavy coffee cake that had been known to jumpstart my days in the past. I would eat a large slice of this in a delirium fueled by the dyad of sugar and butter only to feel lousy afterwards. No, this clafoutis was healthy breakfast food -you could feel good about having a generous slice, rest assured of getting in your ration of carbs, protein (and some fat), and avoid slipping into a terminal torpor later.
The possibilities seem endless to me. Breakfast, lunch, dinner , dessert; all these are arbitrary categories ready to be turned on their heads with some tweaking of original recipes. Less sugar in an inherently healthy dessert and voila, you have a viable breakfast dish. Likewise, a savory dish traditionally meant for dinner can be transformed into something else entirely with a few adjustments. Perhaps with this calculus, I could tone down kimchi's fieriness and have it for breakfast?

Plum Clafoutis
(adapted from Julia Child's recipe)
1 lb of plums, pitted and sliced
3 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
pat of butter
Preheat oven to 350 F
Butter the bottom and sides of a deep pie dish.
Place sliced plums over the bottom of dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar until the mixture is pale yellow. Add milk, vanilla, and salt to mixture and sift in flour. Continue to whisk until batter is free of clumpy flour. Pour mixture over plums.
Bake on center rack for 45 minutes, rotating once. It is done when the clafoutis puffs up.
Cool slightly before serving. Serves 6.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thai Tea

For weeks, I looked forward to attending the Printer's Row Book Fair. Held every spring in open air, the fair ranged over several streets in downtown Chicago. I was excited at the prospect of being surrounded by books and like-minded bibliophiles. It's an ambience that I have always luxuriated in. I browsed and meandered within and between the different stalls- those of booksellers and publishing houses, both large and small.

The signs bore familiar names from past years- Powells Books, University of Chicago Press, and my favorite, Casterbridge Books. I drew towards them, enchanted. I thumbed through works of fiction- the volumes stacked haphazardly on wooden tables and makeshift shelves -and found the old stalwarts from my earlier years. There were the old editions of Thomas Hardy's novels at the aptly named Casterbridge Books stall and also George Eliot's Adam Bede -whose titular hero had stolen my heart. The characters in these books entwined their lives with mine at one time, providing solace and comradeship to a gangly twelve-year old.

I thank my dad for igniting my abiding passion for reading which started when I was young. He would take me on our weekly trip to the local Salvation Army store. Once there, we headed without fail to the used book section. What new books awaited me this week? There was Heidi living on the Alpine mountainside with her grandfather, Hans Brinker and his equally charmed life. I eagerly snapped up on one occasion a hefty volume of the Swiss Family Robinson - with Robinson Crusoe on the flip cover. Two for the price of one! I learned from these pages the meaning of the word caoutchouc for the first time -so very useful if you are stranded on an island.

Hours after the book fair, E and I sipped tea at a Thai restaurant in suburban Chicago. The evening was cooler and we put on sweaters, warming ourselves with hot Thai tea. The tea was curiously fragrant. I could tell that its base was an Indian black but it was only later on that I learned of the other added spices -the principal one being star anise. The copper-hued liquor had a bracing licorice bite that I found pleasant. We shared a piece of Thai custard -earthy and rich- and finished our pot of tea, ready for the drive back home.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rosehip Tea

Spring seems quite elusive around here. Temperatures up to the 80s during the day followed by a drop to the wintry 40s at night are not so unusual lately. With bare arms, I avidly soak up every ray of sun nearby when out for my evening walks, only to swathe myself in woolly sweaters hours later. This seasonal aberration also sneaks into my work-life. The flu in June? Not likely to happen as most cases occur in winter and at the latest, in early April. But this year is different, in part, due to the swine flu. Precautions abound at the clinic: I don the snug-fitting mask -which occludes my nostrils and seems to imminently cut off air to my lungs- when encountering a patient who has suspicious respiratory symptoms. This mandate from the Health Department is assiduously complied by the clinic, and my patient and I find ourselves awkwardly separated by matching paper masks as we greet each other.

With this miasma of porcine hysteria about me, I recently unearthed a long-forgotten jar of dry Jamaican rosehips from the nether regions of my dedicated tea-shelf. It languished, unopened and tucked between a flask of Spanish olive oil and a bottle of Haitian rum. I took this find to be a clarion call to preventative health -naturopath-style. Rosehips (also called rose haws), pods culled from the bases of rose petals, are purportedly rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants. Perhaps, by imbibing their essence in a tisane, I would ward off all sorts of air-borne ailments floating about.

So I did exactly that and brewed 20 or so pods of the haws in several cups of boiling water and left the pot to simmer for 15 minutes. This process yielded a ruby-red liquor with a tangy bite to it, very reminiscent of of Celestial Seasonings' Red Zinger tea- a not surprising revelation as rosehips is listed as the second ingredient on the packaging of this esteemed bagged herbal tea. Brewing the tea was my concession to lingering Winter, and as I refused to admit defeat altogether, I tossed a springtime salad to accompany my brew.

Baby spinach with generous amounts of julienned carrots and a handful of sun-dried tomatoes were drizzled with a pear-vinaigrette dressing. Topped with pan-fried tofu and sprinkled with fresh Parmesan cheese, this salad was a hearty one-dish meal.

Stopping short of muttering Rastafarian incantations, I dutifully sipped my cup of rosehip tea between bites of the crunchy greens.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Cherry Affair

Lazy summer mornings up north found us languidly falling out of bed. Blearily, we drew towards our cereal of choice, those individual-sized boxes arrayed neatly on the roughly-hewn kitchen counter. My brother, K, invariably picked the most sugary and colorful of the bunch -Lucky Charms or Fruit Loops while my sister and I tended towards the restrainedly sweet Raisin Bran. We sleepily gathered around the clumsy-looking dining table and slowly woke up as we ate breakfast together with our parents. Thus began our days in the rented cabin in the woods, just outside Traverse City. After breakfast, the heat had already set in and we walked the several feet to the lake's edge and dipped our feet in the icy-cold water. The surface was bejeweled with dancing glints of light and caused me to squint as I deposited my beach towel and books on the sand. We swam and shivered, skipped stones, and read books, whiling away the mornings.

The afternoons, we wandered into town, walking the length of the store-lined streets with other summer vacationers, inhaling the enticing scents coming from the ubiquitous fudge shops nearby. But the raison d'etre (mine, in any case) of these strolls were the cherries. Tart Michigan cherries, grown in this region and the adjacent Leelanau Peninsula, were then at their peak season, plump and eminently delectable with anything that you chose to pair them with: pies, ice cream, and studded in those melt-in-your-mouth fudge. With abandon, we ate
these cherries -in their myriad forms- and invariably took home the locally-made American Spoon cherry jam.

Over twenty years later, I find myself -now with E- surrounded by cherry orchards in late summer, but now across the lake, in Wisconsin's Door County. With cherry blossoms now faded, heralding the big cherry harvest in mid-July, I could not help carrying home the first batch of sweet cherries I espied this season at our local grocery.

Strewn in profusion in an eggy batter for a cherry clafoutis - a pancake-like concoction- they emitted their natural sweetness. As the clafoutis baked in the oven, the smell of cherries gradually filled our kitchen with their pleasing scent. E and I sat down to our tea with a pot of the Hongqing Special and our slices of the cherry clafoutis. A happy pairing this was of a tea -with strong floral notes- and a barely sweet cherry-laden affair that doubled as my breakfast the next day.

Cherry Clafoutis
(adapted from Julia Child's recipe)
1 1/2 lbs tart or sweet cherries (pitted)
3 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 -3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour (use 3/4 cup if you prefer the texture of your clafoutis to be more pancake-like and less custardy)
pinch of salt
pat of butter
Preheat oven to 350 F
Butter the bottom and sides of a deep pie dish.
Place berries over the bottom of dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar until the mixture is pale yellow. Add milk, vanilla, and salt to mixture and sift in flour. Continue to whisk until batter is free of clumpy flour. Pour mixture over berries.
Bake on center rack for 45 minutes, rotating once. It is done when the clafoutis puffs up.
Cool slightly before serving. Serves 6.