Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas cookies

It all started a couple of days ago when my daughter came back from school with a note from her teacher asking me if I could donate a dozen cookies for an upcoming event at the school. It sounded all perfectly doable until I saw the handwritten side note specifying Christmas cookies.
Panic struck me : I had never baked Christmas cookies. As a matter of fact we are not very familiar with the my-kitchen-is-turned-into-a cookie-factory-for-the-entire-month-of-December kind of tradition that other families seem to wholeheartedly embrace or shall I say observe religiously each year. Anyway it came in a timely manner to remind me that I had yet to return that empty box to my neighbor who had given me a share of her yearly tradition…I would return the empty box full… with more Christmas cookies.
I still had to find both the inspiration and the recipe to start my little enterprise.
The Washington Post saved me. The Wednesday edition features a food section I always enjoy flipping through. I already had in mind the kind of cookies I wanted to make : a frosted sugar cookie.

Because a) I get to roll out my dough and have fun choosing and cutting the shapes and b) I get to choose the color of the frosting. That sounded like tons of fun. As I unfolded the paper my would-be cookies were making the front page : delicate, slightly iridescent snowflake cookies. They were part of a larger project consisting of an entire Christmas wreath as an edible ornament ; for me they would remain cookies and I was ready for the challenge.

Making my own roll out cookie dough proved trickier than I had hoped and more time consuming as the dough had to be refrigerated overnight then rolled to the desired thickness (also a tricky part) and cut without either sticking to the counter (definitely the trickiest part) or become a stretched melting deformed version of the original shape. It would then have to be refrigerated one more time before going in the oven.
Then came the frosting and my memorable first time using a piping bag armed with a number 2 tip. The result : pretty little sugary treats.
I still had to find a suitable way to package my confections for the school. I had kept a bulky plastic container which used to hold my organic baby arugula in its first life. I was going to give it a second one. I would tie a nice piece of ribbon around it to give it that festive look and there : my eco-chic cookie box.

And who knows it might even be a lucky salad container and get a third life as a craft box in a happy first grade classroom?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


What could possibly be more comforting and indeed tasty in those chilly wintry days than a nice bowl of chili? Right maybe a hearty soup loaded with root vegetables. But not today.

With winter coming and our most cherished farmer’s markets and CSA’s closing their doors until spring, fresh local seasonal vegetables are in short supply…forcing me to do some serious thinking if I want my children to not only eat their dinner but actually enjoy it too.

My chili making starts a day ahead. I never ever use canned beans….to me vegetables coming from a can are not to be trusted, taste or nutrition wise. In this recipe I use 3 different types of beans that I soak for about 16 hours and then cook for 4. Time consuming you’ll say ; well all the soaking requires is for you to fill up a bowl of water put the beans in and let it sit on the counter, then while the beans are bubbling away on the stove…well you get the picture.

The dish has simmered just long enough for the ingredients to start binding together (but not too long as I wouldn’t want my beans to start loosing their shape) in a large cast iron pot along with some ground beef, a chunky tomato sauce and other vegetables, spices and of course chili. In this case a chipotle chili in adobo sauce for some extra smokiness.

To serve ladle into a bowl and add sour cream (aka crema or crème fraiche) or grated cheese. I like my chili piping hot with a sprig of cilantro.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Challah here I come!

I never quite really understood why when pursuing a culinary education there was automatically a divide between baking and cooking. “Thou shalt choose! Thou shalt become a pastry chef or a culinary chef!” in any case, not both!
And why not?

When I became a more enthusiast cook about 6 years ago (of course, I had fed myself before that!) I started to play around with more ingredients and new techniques and oddly enough I started to develop what I call a flourphobia.
Each and every time a recipe involved dipping my hands into flour my confections almost invariably turned out as hard as a rock and just plain inedible.
I was purposefully shying away from any recipe that would call for the slightest dusting of flour.

Six years down the road I am a more experienced baker, it took some time, but I guess I could never quite bring myself to give up on flour and dough, and I have to confess that today I find it almost addictive to work with flour.
One of the lessons I learned though was that when you’re baking you’re dealing with much more than just ingredients, your pots and pans and a goodwill to make something yummy. Baking involves chemistry, which honestly I am not eager to learn so I’ll just stick to the fundamentals. When I bake I feel I am truly creating something. Baking makes me feel like a magician, it is an art that I find irresistibly attractive, warm and comforting, almost the essence of life ….so reducing it to a couple of formulas….no thank you.
Today I am attempting to make my first Challah. I came across Challah when I lived in New-York. The sweet, buttery, soft and chewy texture of Challah was a perfect replica of my childhood’s brioche.
And here it is right out of the oven. I guess all I have to say is Mazel tov!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

foraging for food

When hunting for food I find that farmer’s markets have no comparable equivalent and I decidedly want to support their activity for many reasons. But besides the Saturday morning lively market place, I have a few other places I will keep returning to as I can trust they’ll undoubtedly carry this very special ingredient on my latest recipe find. Among them is Whole Foods. It’s a great source of inspiration for those new, different, unusual ingredients I was referring to yesterday.

Entering into Fall is a special moment for me. It’s harvest time with the treasures of nature fully matured and ready for the table. Fruit in abundance ripened all Summer long by the tirelessly blazing sun until the fragile skin bursts and lets out the sweet nectar of life. The time where all Seasons suddenly make sense.

One of my favorite things is that fall yields so many varieties of Squash. I am completely fascinated by Squash. The colors and shapes inspire me: they’re beautiful and the way they grow in the garden is intriguing, almost poetic. I love them and want to try them all.

So on my last visit to Whole Foods I discovered a squash I had never encountered before: the Hubbard Squash. Beautiful and oddly shaped, with a mysterious green skin hiding what I could only envision of the flesh beneath. What color could it be hiding? It was a deep yellow. The taste was unbelievably nutty (much more so than the butternut squash), dense and sweet. I enjoyed it the simplest way possible: steamed with a drizzle of olive oil. As I am still experimenting, there will certainly be more to come on the various ways of enjoying squash.

There you go: my best example of where to go to find variations and diversity. Whole Foods is a great start. Go to their site, click on store locator and give it a try next time you find yourself bored as can be on a Sunday afternoon.

There’s a lot to be tempted about. They have a great selection of fruit and vegetables, organic locally sourced specials and if you’re not so much into raw ingredients, take a look at the refrigerated section and pick a yoghurt that advertises all types of ferments and active cultures and chances are you’re in for a sweet and tangy healthy treat. Their bread aisle is also fantastic…so many things to try French lean breads, creamy ciabattas or whole grain seed-crowded loaves. It’s all there.

So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and get cooking.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

some food for thought

Dear Friends,

I would like to share some thoughts with you today on my approach to food and eating in general.

As mentioned in my Monday post, I feel there is a little too much panicking going on where food is concerned. People are generally wary of what they eat and the complex and ever changing advice they receive from their surroundings doesn’t make things any easier. Should I avoid saturated fats or white pasta? Can I ever eat out again?

My feeling is that the only things to be avoided are those non-food elements which have been added to our current diet as a result of farming or manufacturing techniques inherent to food cultivation, processing, transport and storage, such as pesticides, food coloring, artificial flavors, preservatives, GMOs, hydrogenated fats (transfats), etc. These are not food stuffs we were ever meant to eat, but are added to food for ulterior motives or which are simply hard to keep out of our food supply. These food stuffs cannot be totally excluded from your diet (as they are added to most products you buy in the supermarket). However, worse than eating them, is giving in to the fear and panic that surrounds them. Creating a bad relationship with food is the worst thing you can do!

All other food is fair game, keeping in mind that a healthy diet should be consumed in moderation and contain a healthy variety of food. Eating should be a pleasurable experience! Taking pleasure in what you eat is fundamental to cultivating healthy eating habits.

Diets should not be about deprivation, but about positive consumption of the many and varied food stuffs out there. Just be aware of what you are eating by keeping in mind the different nutritional value of ingredients.
Be wary of diets which proclaim the total exclusion of certain food elements: no more meat or white starches for instance. Just think about it: the Japanese eat white rice three times a day and, as we know, live longer than most of us!
Rather than depriving yourself, look for new elements to include in your diet, such as seaweed, seeds and spices, variations on traditional vegetables, natural sweeteners (such as rice, agave or maple syrup) etc. Try other methods of food preparation, which may bring out different flavors, textures and nutritional content.

Again, a healthy diet is also about creating a healthy mentality towards food. We should not feel guilty when we eat and we should not have to deprive ourselves of foods we enjoy. Think of the pleasures you are missing out on if on your next visit to New Orleans you pass on a local dish of Shrimp Creole because you read it may contain saturated fats?

Don’t get me wrong though, there are good reasons for avoiding food if you are afraid of the chemical content or perhaps for environmental reasons (if the aforementioned shrimp are literally being fished to extinction). However, these reasons aside, we should try to explore new foods, rather than depriving ourselves. Be adventurous, there are so many dishes to try!

And yes, you should be smart about what you eat. Know your ingredients and how they affect your body. But rather than avoiding certain (non-chemical) ingredients outright, consume them in moderation. Avoidance is an unhappy approach to food which can easily lead to frustration.

And lastly, do not confuse healthy eating with longevity or weight loss. Sadly, we cannot control our surroundings and there are many things we may die of. As for weight loss: yes, a healthy approach to food could help you loose weight if you are carrying real excess weight, even though this is not the main purpose. But we also need to accept that our body changes over time and may loose some of its initial vivacity as we grow older. Luckily, there are other joys that come with age to compensate for this loss (like family, children, independence, etc.). A healthy approach to food will help you live better now and guarantee better performance of vital bodily functions at a later age.

I hope the above insights may help you enjoy your food and I welcome any thoughts you may want to share.

All the best,


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

new tidbits

Hello friends!

I would like to use this moment to share some kitchen discoveries I recently made.

I have wanted to try my hand at baking for a while. Until now, I have focused almost exclusively on cooking, which comes more naturally to me through my family heritage (regional foods and traditional cooking have always played a central role in my family). I thought a good place to start would be with the most common American cakes and pastries, such as brownies and chocolate chip cookies. My intent is to find one good recipe I can rely on for each staple food.

My first attempt came after watching an episode on brownies as presented by the Barefoot Contessa on Food Network. I feel this program is a good source of information on traditional American food, more specifically where baking is concerned.

The recipe however, as mentioned on their website, called for the use of a sheet pan. After consulting some of my reference sites, I headed to Williams Sonoma to purchase a heavy gauge aluminum sheet pan as this appeared best suited to the task and came with a no-guilt price tag. The results were amazing: even baking and no burnt bottom. I highly recommend using these pans, as they are very versatile and can be used for roasting as well as many other baking needs.

As for the recipe, I indeed found what I was looking for! With my staple brownie recipe and all-purpose sheet pan in hand, I ventured into new waters with a chocolate chip cookie recipe from the King Arthur Flour website. Again a resounding success, judging from the reactions of my all-too-willing and yet brutally honest, in-house connoisseurs.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more adventures to come!


Monday, October 13, 2008

My first post

So this is it: my first post.

I am a food enthusiast and like many other enthusiasts, spend a good deal of time consuming media bites on what to eat and how to do it (Food Network, Bon Appetit and other food blogs such as 101cookbooks and chocolateandzucchini, both of which I highly recommend). Everywhere I look I’m pushed or pulled in one direction or another. Eating isn't simple anymore. But one thing has become clear to me through the barrage of sensory stimuli: we all need to calm down a little! Why does everything need to be so complicated? Why do I have to feel guilty every time I put my fork in my mouth?

In my opinion, there are three major ingredients to eating well: a basic understanding of food preparation, distinguishing good natural and unprocessed ingredients from bad ones, and understanding the effect your emotional wellbeing can have on your eating habits. I believe that we can create durable healthy eating habits only through the application of this three thronged approach.

When approaching this subject, we should distinguish good emotions from bad ones. Eating is not a platonic experience; it can and should get emotional at times! We can and should feel joy and passion when we eat. I want to reach down to reconnect with my most basic natural instincts and appreciate food the way we were meant to.

I can (and do to a large degree) spend most of my days in the kitchen and even when not physically present, I have kitchen on my mind. I collect recipes, shop for food and utensils and cook. Luckily, I am blessed with a hungry family to gobble up my creations.

That’s all I have time for. Be back soon. Cheers, FLORENCE