Great Food Advice is for Everyone!

August 22, 2013
by MarketMaven
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VIVE LA FRANCE!

The very first time The Maven set foot on French soil was thrilling, but even more exciting to a budding foodie was the promise of la cuisine francaise —French cuisine. In a world before you could buy a croissant at Burger King, the traveler to France could revel in a breakfast of a flaky, buttery, made-entirely-from-scratch croissant. Along with the croissant was a bowl of café au lait — what Starbuck’s later christened a latte.

Sightseeing in France always included stopping for leisurely and deliberate meals. No eating on the fly, grabbing a sandwich and a diet soda. Oh no, in France, each meal was a high point, and despite the often prickly French attitude, a true pleasure. In the years before globalism brought sameness to everything from clothing to movies to food, dining in France was distinct and different and delicious. There were new foods to sample and simple foods prepared in bistros that sang of deep flavor and lifetimes of experience in preparation.

But quelle horreur (what horror!) today, as The Maven read that French euros spent in fast food restaurants have exceeded that spent in restaurants. The number of French bringing their own lunches to work keeps steadily increasing, and even more shocking, there are restaurants which are presenting frozen prepared meals, finished off in the microwave, to cut their costs and try to compete in the new reality. Could this be the end of French cuisine as we know it?

The French are so proud of their culinary prowess that they managed to have it included on the list of World Heritage items., which include such icons as the Taj Mahal. The land of legendary chefs, the chef-rating Michelin stars, the breakthroughs in techniques — all this makes up how France has viewed food. Food is essential and more than sustenance in France. It is time, first of all, spent savoring carefully prepared meals, without rushing to the next event. Portions are generally much smaller than Americans are used to, The French introduced the world to cooking with fresh herbs, the wonders of wine with meals, bubbly water, baguettes and sauces…and so much more.

So how are things evolving in France these days? Restaurants are fighting back, and advertising their food as fait maison, or homemade, rather than prepackaged. Another change has been the rise of boulangeries, which are the classic French bakery with a twist. Yes, they still sell bread, and will always do so, but they have expanded their repertoire to include items for take away meals. Sandiwches, quiches, soups…customers can stop by, and typically grab one of these with a dessert pastry and a drink. French supermarkets have taken notice, and large chains like Carrefour are introducing their own brands of snacking: foods to be taken away and eaten on the run. So far, no one is eating meals in their cars, but The Maven expects that to happen, too.

In the fabled and sunny south of France, languid lunchtime meals lasted for a few hours.

What was the rush, after all? But today’s busy world doesn’t allow for that amount of time. Is there still a place for a typically French meal?

The Maven says yes. A breakfast of fresh bread, a brioche or croissant, slathered with butter and a punchy fruit jam, can start the day, along with a just-brewed bowl of coffee. Taking time to savor the food and to enjoy each bite can fuel the day and give a little frisson of pleasure at good food, simply prepared.

The same for lunch and dinner. It’s classically French to put together a meal with a salad, just dressed with a vinegar and oil and some chopped fresh herbs, a few slices of good bread, a main of chicken, possibly roasted, a small beef steak with a handful of frites (French fries), perhaps a lentil salad, chock full of hearty vegs and flavor, a side of flash-cooked green beans. The idea is what we all strive for: good, fresh, honest, tasty food.  Isn’t there always time for that in a a world where everything spins faster and faster?

The Maven, in a nod to France, enjoys a Nicoise salad all summer long. Freshly cooked tuna (canned is okay if that’s all you have), string beans, sun-ripe tomatoes, small red potatoes, chopped egg (The Maven leaves these off, in an aversion to eggs), tiny French black olives, capers, red onion and lots of arugula, romaine and other summer lettuces, drizzled with a simple olive oil, lemon, Dijon mustard and seasoned dressing. Along with a chunk of French bread, it’s like the first meal The Maven ate in France.  And because it’s a salad, it must be eaten carefully and slowly. That is the essence of French cuisine, and the part that will endure.

 

August 16, 2013
by MarketMaven
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SOMETIMES A FOOD JUST GRABS AND WON’T LET GO

And that is exactly what happened to The Maven a week or so ago. All summer, splendid meals were created from the best of the season. Eating local, eating fresh, eating spur-of-the-moment what should we make for dinner days filled the calendar .

Grilled planked salmon, a chopped broccoli salad, peach crisp and chicken prepared a thousand ways, along with a caprese penne pasta, loaded with kalamata olives, basil and garden-grown cherry tomatoes…yes, living was easy and meals eagerly anticipated.

The Maven has always made a potato salad from scratch. It’s a labor of love for the person who gave the recipe so generously, a two-hour stretch of boiling, peeling, chopping, mixing, getting all steamy but resulting in a huge container of homemade bliss.

This time, as potato salad was being considered for a side, someone mentioned having a macaroni salad. The Maven jumped on this, quizzing as to what was in the salad. Macaroni salads are sold in delis everywhere, but surprisingly, The Maven had never made one before. Surely, it could be more than noodles and mayonnaise. The challenge was on.

Thinking back to childhood mac salads, it seemed like there were at least two kinds that regularly appeared at potlucks throughout the year. The first was a basic elbow macaroni salad, held together with a paste of mayonnaise, and loaded with various vegetables, diced and chopped bitesize.  The second included canned tuna mixed into the mac, which elevated the dish to a main course, rather than a side — but who’s concerned about that? It seems like tuna and macaroni, while a worthy combo, should be put aside as a separate dish, not officially a macaroni salad. On to the preferred choice..

We don’t really know where macaroni salad came from, but it started making an appearance in American cookbooks in the early 20th century. In those days, it was called a dressed salad (ie dressing mixed in) and often molded into a mountain-like shape. It was a popular side, always served cold, to barbecue, fried chicken and picnic fare. In the very trendy ‘80s, it morphed into a pasta salad, because macaroni salad just sounds so…pedestrian? Same thing, only lots more thoughts about what kind of pasta to use, what to include, which dressing, etc.

The classic, though, is like this: elbow macaroni, cooked al dente, so it doesn’t fall apart when mixed together (it should be a bit chewy, but never crunchy).Let the macaroni cool and select your mix-ins. The Maven’s favorite version features Cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, sweet onions, sour pickles, black olives and celery. These all should be diced to approximately the same size. You want to be able to spear an add-in along with every bite of macaroni.

The dressing part is simply mayonnaise to coat, along with the dash of white vinegar and sugar to balance out the flavors. Season to taste, mix it all together, and season again before eating. Mac salad is best when it has several hours for the flavors to gell.

In Hawaii, mac salad is a honored part of the plate lunch. It often has potatoes, hard boiled eggs, carrots, onions and Italian dressing, along with mayonnaise. 

The Maven insists that there be crunch (hence the celery), a hint of sweetness and plenty of stuff added in. The dressing itself should never be gloppy but should just skim over the macaroni like a gentle coating.

When it was time to sample the big bowl of macaroni salad to some admittedly skeptical eaters, the comments were rewarding. The diners loved the flavor, remembered eating it as kids, and came back for seconds, thirds…and there was enough left over for a few more meals. That is, there was, but someone was taking big spoonfuls straight from the fridge.

Macaroni salad is one of those iconic foods that gets stuck in the food part of your brain and won’t let go. And, really, why should it?  It tastes like happy .

August 9, 2013
by MarketMaven
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SQUASHES OF A DIFFERENT COLOR

The splendors of the season are unfolding: the absolutely perfect summer berries, the little French lettuces and hearty romaines, the bushels of Queen Anne cherries, soon to be followed by the harvest of baseball-sized, drippingly juicy peaches: could summer eating get any better?

 Casting about for a new twist on summer vegetables, The Maven landed on that old favorite, summer squash. It goes by its less elegant name, zucchini, and as every summer gardener knows, zucchini has a tendency to take over the entire garden, its thick, curving stems wrapping around other, more helpless vegetables (peppers? garlic scapes?).

But zucchini is just one of a few kinds of summer squash that tempt the seasonal cook. There’s a lovely slender yellow squash and a longer green squash one can mistakenly pick up, thinking it’s a cucumber. A more bulbous chayote squash is green-grey and rather wrinkly. And there’s cute little pattypan, a dish-shaped, shallow and scallop-edged bright yellow or green marvel. These are versatile vegetables, willing to do almost anything asked of them. Slice them thinly for salads or stir-fries, roast them on the grill with a dash of olive oil, shred them into a batter for a moist quick bread or cake, slow-cook them over a low heat and bingo! It’s ratatouille, the beloved south of France summer casserole, served at room temperature.

Sometimes, if you are very lucky, you will come upon zucchini or squash blossoms. (If you are growing your own zucchini inevitably you will have blossoms, because each zucchini that appears is preceded by a blossom.) The Maven found zucchini blossoms at the market, and happily scooped them up. They are a cook’s treat. 

The Maven first ate zucchini blossoms at a new friend’s house. The friend had Italian roots: the blossoms were deep-fried, crispy and so tasty all ten were devoured. The blossoms themselves had a slightly peppery, tangy taste, pleasant and a bit more distinctive than the mother plant, which tends towards bland.

This time around, it was hot outside and dinner was a cool affair. So The Maven concocted a filling for the blossoms, which are shaped a bit like a chandelier light bulb, slightly closed at the tip, but quite amenable to stuffing. The fridge revealed some local goat cheese. Mixed with a zippy fruity olive oil (just a bit) and sprinkled with  Hawaiian sea salt (where did all these sea salts come from? Topic for another post…), the blossoms were kept cold until dinner, then presented as an appetizer, along with the preferred wine of the season: rose, chilled.

Each bite was simply delicious. The goat cheese was strong, but not so much that it overpowered the delicate flavor of the blossoms, nor was it so filling that it tamped down the desire for a full meal an hour later. Even the most reluctant of diners pronounced the blossoms quite good. High praise!

Now, as to the other squash of the evening, a yellow and a green: sliced into little coins, seasoned and grilled until soft, sprinkled with some fresh Parmesan…well, that was all that was needed to tame these eager little vegs. Don’t be afraid of summer squash, whatever the color. Its versatility lends itself to whatever you want, from substance for a chocolate cake to a pasta dish. Like the ubiquitous kale, you might as well start to love squash, because it thrives yearround.

August 1, 2013
by MarketMaven
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HAPPY HOUR STARTS EARLY

After an intense morning of too many to-dos, The Maven and friend ended up at an outdoor café basking in the pleasant July sunshine. Already after 2 p.m., they worried about whether they would be able to get lunch in this peculiar restaurant in-between time. (If The Maven had a restaurant, it would serve continuously, even breakfast at all hours, because when people want a meal, time of day doesn’t matter.)

Good news, however, when the friend noted that happy hour had just started. Neither was interested in early afternoon fancy umbrella drinks, though they looked tempting. Rather, the small edited happy hour menu caught our attention. Barbecued pork sliders were front and center, and that’s what was ordered.

Sliders are ubiquitous little sandwiches that started appearing on restaurant menus in the mid-‘80s. The legendary White Castle hamburger chain, anchored in the Midwest, first promoted them, and their popularity has never waned. Indeed, it has expanded to include many options, from happy hour menus to full course entrees.

The only rule is that sliders are very small bites, just a couple of inches across. This allows for eating two or three per serving, and feeling righteous about not stuffing oneself with a big juicy hamburger. Original sliders were mini burgers, ground beef patties with all the fixings added on a small bun. It didn’t take long for new favorites, like a barbecued pork slider to appear. Many iterations later, the slider continues its reign.

Anything that can be made into a sandwich can become a slider. Loving a summery BLT? Perfect. A Philly meatball sandwich, gooey with rich tomato gravy? Yes. Lobster salad is rich and satisfying for just a couple of bites. PB &J? Oh, the pleasure of a few little nibbles of this classic.

In order to make the slider tasty, don’t skimp on all the extras. Use the freshest greens, and go for something different, like arugula or endive. Heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced and topped with chopped basil, add so much to an Italian-themed provolone and salume slider. Hot peppers, different kinds of cheeses, pickles and onions — just use your imagination and conjure up a mini sandwich that is small on bites but huge on flavor.

That goes for the bun, too. A buttery brioche is often used with a burger slider. The Maven has seen biscuits, cornbread, mini waffles and that sweet King’s Hawaiian rolls as enclosures for the fillings. The idea here is to make every single bite bursting with the best combo of flavors you can put together, satisfaction in just a couple of bites.

The Maven has a favorite slider, completely simple in its contents, always welcome as a holiday appetizer or brunchy kind of entrée. Slices of thin baked ham are coupled with shredded Swiss cheese, alternating ham-cheese-ham-cheese a few times. Spread the inside of a mini burger bun with a blend of soft butter, Dijon mustard, grated sweet onions and poppy seeds.  Coat this lavishly on the top of the bun, too. Bake in a moderate oven until the contents are warmed through. You might need to finish it off on broil to get the top with the spread nice and crispy. Simple. Tasty.

The Maven and friend sat outdoors, watching the casual strollers on this sunny afternoon, and took our time, relishing barbecued pork sliders.  With a slather of coleslaw on top of the pork, and a few thick steak fries in the middle of the two sliders, the $5 happy hour choice was as perfect as it could be, and with a glass of Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea) easily fueled the afternoon’s adventures.

July 26, 2013
by MarketMaven
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THE LADY PROTESTETH TOO MUCH

Hers was the success story we Americans love: humble beginnings leading to an empire built on her spunky personality and her unique take on a culinary tradition: Southern cooking. For Paula Deen, the rise was meteoric: restaurants, cookbooks, television shows, endorsements, followed by a swift tumble that is still playing out.

Her style of cooking is based on plenty of butter, cream, cheese and sugar. She takes Southern dishes and adapts them with none-too-healthy ingredients, such as canned soups, mayonnaise and even cola drinks. People love or loathe her frisky manner. It was all good until last month.

Two issues led to her current situation, which includes cancellation of everything from her shows on The Food Network, sponsorships like Smithfield Hams and Target and  any upcoming cookbooks. Ms. Deen’s first problem began first a few years ago, when she found out she was diabetic. While still promoting her rich foods, she kept quiet about her disease. Then, she snagged a deal endorsing a new diabetes drug, coincidentally revealing she had the disease. She made some changes in her lifestyle and recipes. People questioned her integrity by not revealing her illness sooner, while enthusiastically pushing Krispy Kreme bread pudding and ooey-gooey butter cake. It felt wrong.

As that issue appeared to fade away, the second erupted when it was revealed in a court deposition she gave, that she used the “n” word for African-Americans. The resulting firestorm has been relentless. 

Since that unsavory disclosure, many have rallied around her, pointing out she has been a tireless advocate for Southern culinary style, a type of cooking that most people don’t recognize beyond clichéd collard greens and fried chicken. Others say she made her fortune on the backs of recipes that originally were developed by slaves for their owners, and refined by African-American chefs through the years. Some leading Southern cooks have indicated that Deen’s style of cooking doesn’t accurately reflect the richness of Deep South flavors. Think creamy grits and rich gravy, fresh okra stew and pimiento cheese balls. Smoked hams or ducks, briny oysters and crabs fresh from the sea, juicy dripping peaches and pecan pie: perhaps these are the emblems of true Southern cooking. 

On the other hand, there has always been a place in the world of cooking for people who use shortcuts, or who take a cuisine to a different place. Is it more authentic to produce a simple, corn-filled cornbread, or is it okay to dress it up with plenty of sour cream, extra butter and some jalapenos? Every cook who goes on to establish her own style of cooking can claim roots from some cuisine, but it’s how you take it from there that makes yours unique and interesting. Paula Deen’s cooking, while not a favorite of The Maven, is authentic to her Georgia roots. 

What is not authentic is having someone tout the kinds of food that can lead to obesity and higher cholesterol and possibly serious illness, such as diabetes or clogged arteries. What is not right is knowing you have a serious disease, making changes in your own diet, while continuing to promote the kind of foods that might have led to your illness. What is not right is having someone profit by now explaining that if you happened to get those diseases, there was a new drug (which by the way she now is selling and profiting from) which can help. Transparency in all things is vital. 

And using a racial epithet is simply unacceptable. Wrong. 

So when this larger-than-life, Southern-styled caricature steps into the spotlight once more to try to explain  over and over again why she didn’t mean what she said or what she did, it’s like too much explanation. The Lady, as she calls herself, just protests too much. Make it right, apologize like you understand why it’s not right and try to rebuild credibility with your audience. And maybe, just maybe, you can come up with some new recipes that take Southern cooking to a whole new level. A healthier level, and a level that reflects your own style. That would be keeping faith with your fans, and a fitting chapter in honest reinvention.

July 18, 2013
by MarketMaven
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DROWNED IN COFFEE

The Maven remembers it clearly. It was one of those oppressively humid August afternoons in that temple of humidity: Washington DC. The sun was relentless, the moisture-laden air blanketing every step, making the trudge from monument to museum to historical site seem impossibly long. Having lived in humid climates and proud of an ability to shrug off humidity, the Maven on this particular day was drenched head to toe.

Relief came in the form of a detour into yet another air-conditioned building, this time a small café advertising coffee and gelato. Now, the Brits drank hot tea to cool themselves in steamy India, so perhaps a coffee drink would help the Maven. At any rate, there was chilly air blowing fiercely and there was a small bistro table with one chair beckoning. 

When it came time to place an order, rather than a wonderful gelato, one of the Maven’s very favorite treats, there was affogato listed on the chalkboard menu of offerings. Now, an affogato al café is a popular Italian dessert or snack, and like many foods, simple in its ingredients yet packed with great flavors.

The term affogato al café means drowned in coffee, and that’s an apt description. The dessert has two or three ingredients, but the possibilities are endless. A usually clear tall coffee mug anchors the dessert so you can see the entire pleasure unfold before you. Take a scoop of vanilla gelato and pour a hot shot of freshly brewed espresso over it.That’s affogato. Some restaurants add a little stream of an Italian liqueur, like Amaretto, over the espresso. 

Naturally, you can vary the gelato’s flavors, subbing in chocolate hazelnut for vanilla, perhaps a coffee  to go with the espresso. Today’s trendy sea salt caramel sounds like it would be intriguing, too. Nut-flavored ice creams like pistachio might work, but not so sure about a fruity flavor, like strawberry or blood orange. The fun would be in the experimenting.

You can also vary things by using ice cream, which is richer than true gelato. Ice cream is made with whole cream, while gelato is milk-based. Gelato then is a lighter kind of treat than ice cream, but the Maven believes when it comes to dessert, don’t skimp on the flavor you want…if you are after a fine ending to an excellent meal, and you want to touch of luxe, go for it. 

Back to affogato. You can also brew a decaf coffee if it’s after dinner and caffeine keeps you awake. But if you add much of anything else (thinking toppings like nuts, whipped cream, fresh fruits, candy), it is no longer an affogato. It may still be excellent and make you happy, but it’s not the simple Italian dish.

On that August day, when the memory of the number of museums and monuments visited has long faded, what remains is the affogato. The Maven can still summon up the satisfaction of the first spoonful of that achingly sweet vanilla gelato, melting with the hot espresso. The serving was small, but it was just enough to power up the tourist engines to get back out on F Street and continue on in the quest to sightsee all that the District has to offer. Musing on this, you have to agree that the Italians get one thing absolutely right: food. They know how to take ingredients and create something memorably simple, with the bare essence of the food always foremost. Affogato, then, is the quintessential Italian dessert. Can we say bellissimo?

July 11, 2013
by MarketMaven
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COOKING WITH FRIENDS

Once upon a time, the Market Maven & friends would get together for a special weekend away. Too many little ones meant that breakfast, lunch and dinner all were prepared at home. No restaurant meals, due to cost and convenience and attention spans of the guests. A series of meals was planned with military-like precision.

These were elaborate with each guest took charge of one. Over the years, the Maven ate well and was introduced to many favorite dishes (a Parmesan-loaded pasta primavera especially stands out). Three things were absolutes:  someone will always prepare an involved vegetable dish, there will always be fresh bread, and chocolate is the only possible answer to “what’s for dessert?”

Today, the same friends are older and the little ones have their own busy lives.  But there are still weekends to share with each other, and there are still meals to prepare and enjoy together. Everyone pitches in to help prepare the feast. Good times.

These days, it’s simpler. We eat what is in season. One dinner, usually the first evening, will be some kind of seafood. Salmon or halibut, crab if we’re lucky, lobster during Lobster Mania in May. A big tossed salad full of seasonal greens and whatever add-ins we can conjure up, from sliced avocadoes to green Sicilian olives, bits of local goat cheese, peppers, cucumbers and only vine-ripe tomatoes. Depending on who’s buying the bread, it, may be fig and anise, or hearth whole wheat, or a kalamata olive sourdough. This time, a rhubarb pie was offered up, purchased frozen and baked off. It had lots of orange zest and a perfect lattice crust. There wasn’t a piece left. This was a fine dinner. (And there were York peppermint patties for the chocolate fix.)

Another day, breakfast was the star with an old favorite, Joe’s Special. Ground beef, browned, with chopped mushrooms and onions, spinach and eggs added, well-seasoned and all cooked together. Some of us like a hearty breakfast to carry us through the day. This did just that, and along with wedges of pale Tuscan melon, kept us going, at least until lunch.

Lunch is a catch as catch can, often leftovers styled into tacos or burritos or hefty sandwiches. Some prefer nibbling on fresh fruit, others are happy to break off pieces of cookies until there are no more left. Popcorn, made in a skillet on the stove the old-fashioned way, is good, too. Containers of creamy Greek yoghurt work as well.

As the sun either starts its daily descent or the rain clouds part in the evening dusk, it’s time for appetizers. Cheetos, chips and nuts were reliable favorites. We still toss down nuts, but the chips now are the healthier tortilla type, with one of the fine local salsas. We nosh on slender slices of artisan cheeses and chewy wheat crackers. Then there’s the dip, ah, the dip: a blend of softened cream cheese, a bit of milk and some (okay, plenty of) chopped garlic. There is something about this dip that is impossible to resist. The Maven practically licks the bowl clean. Never a morsel left.

After finishing off pieces of cookies one afternoon, the Maven recalled a childhood favorite, made so often that the recipe could still be called up years later.. The no-bake cookies, as they were known, are sheer cookie pleasure. Simple, too: a stick of butter, four tablespoons of cocoa, a couple cups of sugar, half a cup of milk, mixed in a saucepan until boiling.  Remove from the heat, and stir in a cup of peanut butter and three cups of oatmeal. Drop on waxed paper and let sit (if you can wait that long) until firm. These are like the best kind of candy. For the healthier among us, try reducing the sugar slightly. Don’t think it makes much difference. The Maven offered up these cookies and they simply vanished. There’s serendipity in remembered cookies and there’s serendipity in cooking with old friends.

July 5, 2013
by MarketMaven
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THE MIDWEST AND BLUEBERRIES

It was a first birthday for an adorably sassy one-year-old, born on July 1st, and the party theme was red, white and blue. Slices of ripe watermelon (with seeds to spit at each other), dark blue and red tortilla chips, strawberry lemonade and an individual little birthday cake, decorated in patriotic icing. The little miss explored the fondant frosting with her baby fingers, finally smushing the cake into her face as her adoring audience laughed and snapped pics. We guests enjoyed a Fourth-themed cake, too.

It got the Market Maven to recalling one of the earliest memories of that iconic holiday. The Maven had moved to Wisconsin, iconic Midwest land of cheese and, soon to discover,  talented European bakers. Early July was steamy. Moving into a new home, helping to carry boxes and treasures up stairs, into rooms, was endless. The heat was unrelenting.

A neighbor knocked. She was carrying a square baking dish covered with a white linen towel. Her two children had glasses and a sloshing pitcher of sweating fresh lemonade. The Maven & family assembled quickly, and after introductions and welcomes took place, waited eagerly to see what was under that towel. 

It was called a blueberry torte. The Maven had never heard the word torte before, and barely knew what a tart was. This was clearly a different creature. The torte was three rich layers: the bottom a graham cracker crumb crust, sweetened with sugar and held together with melted butter. This was baked for a bit, and cooled. The next layer was a revelation as well: a rich cream cheese filling, flavored with real vanilla and more of the requisite sugar. This was layered on top of the graham crust, and baked some more. The topping was a sauce of the sweetest north woods Wisconsin blueberries, thickened with cornstarch and enhanced with freshly squeezed lemon juice. This cooked topping was spread on the tort and the whole treat was refrigerated until firm.

At that moment, there would never be another July Fourth dessert. It was and would forever be the fabled blueberry torte. The blueberry torte was a summer dessert, even though one could always sub in canned blueberry pie filling for the fresh berries. It just never tasted quite as good when it was served out of season.

The amazing bakers of Wisconsin produced all sorts of tortes. There was the Sachertorte, an Austrian-developed specialty, made with layers of chocolate sponge cake and filled with apricot jam, then coated in dense dark chocolate. Another favorite, the Dobos torte, of Hungarian origins, was also a sponge cake loaded with chocolate buttercream and caramel. There are many more, and they were often on display in local bakeries.

The definition of a true torte is a multi-layered cake, made with little flour, instead using ground nuts or even ground breadcrumbs. The layers were loaded with delicious things like whipped cream, jam, chopped nuts, fresh fruit, chocolate ganache and custards. Where the blueberry torte came from, since it is not anything close to an actual torte, remains a mystery. Perhaps it was a blueberry tart that needed a fancier name? In any event, The Maven has made this simple, satisfying dessert every mid-summer for years. Sometimes raspberries are used, occasionally cherries, but nothing is as good as the blueberries. 

There is something that recalls the great open hearts of Midwest neighbors, the blessed relief from the baking heat of a Wisconsin summer, and the anticipation of just what could be waiting under that towel. It was sheer pure blueberry bliss, and it marked a new beginning in a new place, a stretch of breezeless endless days before school started,, and a time-honored tradition of welcoming people into your community with something sweet and special.

June 28, 2013
by MarketMaven
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PICNIC FOOD: IT ALL TASTES GOOD OUTDOORS

In the golden olden days of childhood, making a sloppy peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich on soft white bread, along with an apple and a chocolate chip cookie, was the preferred meal on the go. Before hopping on one’s horse/chariot/spaceship, The Maven packed a lunch in preparation for a busy day of adventure before returning home for dinner by 5 p.m.

In a peculiar twinning of that time, The Maven often packs much the same for an afternoon of hiking, a longish bike trek or leisurely boating via kayak, canoe, sail or power on the waterways of northwest Washington. The food hasn’t changed much, and probably with good reason: peanut butter provides ample protein plus jelly for energy, apples do the same, and a cookie as a reward for hard work is always included. Recently, The Maven was sitting on the steep slopes of a mountain that was a diamond-level difficulty ski run in the winter, eating a peanut butter sandwich and feeling satisfied.

With the Fourth of July approaching, picnics are on the horizon, and they can be so much more. One of the favorites is a riff on a Provencal French theme: a crusty hard white roll, stuffed with canned or freshly cooked tuna mixed with olive oil, a smidge of vinegar and a good dollop of Dijon-type mustard. Added to this are little black Nicoise olives (pitted please), skinny slices of a summer onion, like the Walla Walla sweet, and some tomato and lettuce. The tomato and lettuce are packed separately and added just before eating to keep them from making everything soggy and wilted. This is a fine sandwich. A side salad that is loaded with summer vegetables, like French-cut string beans, tiny baby carrots and green or yellow squash, bits of red and yellow pepper add some crunch and heft for that all-essential energy. Dress this salad in a spicy vinaigrette and it will happily soften over time, but you’ll want to eat it while it’s chewy. Packing along some fruit that doesn’t fall apart is called for: things like dark purple Bing cherries or some firm strawberries, maybe a nectarine or two…and then there’s dessert. Cookies are the perfect choice, and if you’re lucky enough to be in hottish weather, a crispy oatmeal or snickerdoodle might be better than a chocolate-based treat that melts. However, many people strongly disagree and demand chocolate. Bottled water, sparkling or flavored, complete the little feast.

That is the go-to menu for The Maven’s grown-up picnics, but you can be so much more creative than this. Consider a themed picnic that goes well beyond a bucket of cold fried chicken and a bag of chips. If you love all things Brit, open-faced tea sandwiches, cucumber, smoked salmon, egg salad (keep things cold, naturally) are dainty and call to mind afternoons punting on some English river. A freshly-made lemonade, perhaps flavored with rosemary or raspberries, plus a slice of fruit tart, complete the meal.

Almost anything you love can be eaten outside (well, not ice cream). Plump, grilled bratwurst, well-seasoned steak fajitas, a summer Cobb salad…choose food you enjoy and can transport easily. Dispense with the notion it must be a complete meal and go with what you love, be it a container full of fresh vegetables and a garlicky hummus dip, a club sandwich loaded with turkey, cheese, ham and other goodies, some green chile salsa and your favorite chips…well, you get the idea.  Keep the cold food cold and the hot food cold (there are options for doing this), be sure to bring  a comfortable blanket and enjoy the singular pleasure of eating a meal outside. It can’t get better than this. 

June 20, 2013
by MarketMaven
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MEMORABLE MEAL: QUINTESSENTIALLY SEATTLE

Last weekend, The Maven was fortunate to be included in a hosted dinner at Seattle’s Dahlia Lounge. This iconic restaurant on the edge of Belltown, the flagship of local Seattle chef Tom Douglas’ restaurant and foodie empire, has long been a favorite for its intriguing takes on Northwest favorites and its dependable consistency through the years. Chef Douglas was an early pioneer in searching out the best local Northwest foods and combining them in ways both familiar and daring.

This is food the way The Maven would like to eat every day: local, fresh, interesting enough so one’s palate is continually surprised, but not in an unpleasant way.  From the very first time, when a Tuscan grilled bread salad appeared, chock full of chewy, vinaigrette-soaked bread and plump Nicoise olives, the standard was set high. It did not disappoint.

Appetizers were offered during the longish pre-dinner period, and The Maven went back for seconds. Firm, flavor-rich smoked salmon was chunked on skewers along with a Chinese hot mustard and sesame sauce. Similar to the garish neon red-pink barbecued pork, this pairing was perfect and not garish at all. Next up, in small little dishes, were ahi tuna poke, a Hawaiian-based take on raw tuna flavored with tobiko  and soy. These shooters were easy to slide into the mouth, no utensils necessary. Last up, piles of perfect little fish-shaped samosas, filled with potato puree and accessorized by a green curry sauce with a hint of heat. These three could have been the whole meal, but ah!  There was more.

Guests were offered a carrot soup, spiced up with garam marsala, chopped pistachios and dates, or the aforementioned Tuscan bread salad. It had to be the salad, just to confirm it was still as delicious as ever. And so it was. A nice round slice of coppaciola topped the arugula and other fesity greens, along with diced cherry tomatoes, a generous amount of oil-cured black olives, big wedges of grilled sturdy bread full of flavor, and a dressing that had pesto themes, along with a mustardy vinaigrette. Nirvana once more. The Maven could happily eat this dish every day forever. It’s that good.

For the main entrée, flatiron steak or seared ahi were the choices (well, there was also a vegetarian option which involved edamame, buckwheat noodles, asparagus and other goodies), and The Maven naturally chose the ahi. It didn’t get much better than those generous pieces of sliced, just-perfect seared tuna, topping puffed rice and accompanied by pickled ginger, little rounds of cucumber and a umeboshi (salty pickled plum) mayo and togarashi (Japanese spicy blend) crust. There wasn’t a morsel left.

Dessert is one of the Dahlia’s signature offerings, and there is a bakery next to the restaurant where restraint vanishes amidst the big, chewy cookies, breads and pies. The Dahlia Trio appeared: a chocolate sandwich cookie with a filling that tasted like hazelnut, a small bite of a crème brulee and one more small bite: the queen of all desserts at Dahlia: the triple coconut crème pie. This white chocolate pie, lavish with toasted coconut, is always simply perfection. The fact that the Dahlia offers three bites or tastes of their desserts is such a bonus: don’t you always want to try what someone else has ordered, or wish you could order two desserts (The Maven has done that unashamedly.)?

Lest you think that the menu at The Dahlia is static, well, it isn’t. It appears the chef and his crew are always tinkering with new tastes, new combos, new ways to prepare, while still providing the winning foods that bring customers back time and time again.

In fact, The Maven plans to return in hopes of finding the best black cod ever on the lunch or dinner menu. And if it isn’t there now, you can be certain that whatever is being featured will be among the best you’ve ever eaten. If you’re intrigued and want to check out more, visit  HYPERLINK “http://www.tomdouglas.com” www.tomdouglas.com