I just had the good fortune of visiting Costa Rica, an impressive little country that got rid of its army in 1948, aims to be carbon neutral by 2021, and has a 95% literacy rate. Along with extremely friendly people, the country offers jaw-dropping flora and fauna, lovely beaches, challenging outdoor activities, like jungle hikes, and surprisingly good food!
My husband and I began our trip in the mountainous region of Alajuela near La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a nature park and wildlife refuge, which we briefly visited one day because one of the resident jaguars got loose!
At Monte Azul by the Chirripo River south of San Jose we made monoprints in the hotel’s art studio with a resident printmaker. We also hiked around the property, did yoga, and enjoyed the most scrumptious food! The owners grow their own veggies, make goat’s milk cheese, bake bread, and even craft goat’s milk soaps for all the rooms.
At a beachfront villa on the Nicoya Peninsula we did yoga, ate spiny lobster, and went to sleep and woke up to the rumble of the waves. Then, we wrapped up our visit at a hotel near Arenal Volcano,
where we soaked in the famous hot springs, hiked through the jungle to milky azure pools, and rode horses past the cloud shrouded volcano–ready to return home relaxed, rejuvenated, and centered–Costa Rican style.
I just got back from visiting Costa Rica–more on that in another post–and went into our coat closet this morning to retrieve my winter boots because it snowed last night and I needed to shovel our walkway and front porch stairs. I pulled out my mitten box and noticed lots of dried ziti on the floor! What the heck? Then, I immediately knew: ABNER!
You know how they say, “When the cat’s away, the mice play.” Well, this seems to be the case. Somehow, and this is what I can’t figure out, Abner and his posse got into some dried ziti and had a field day in our coat closet. What’s so bizarre is the number of ziti in my husband’s winter boots! I even had a few ziti in my boots, too.
The reason I know Abner created this mess is because of the droppings in the back of the closet. What mystifies me is how or why the pasta traveled from our kitchen to our front hall closet. And why put the ziti in our boots? And where is the pasta box?
Our Abner is such a mysterious little fellow…and endlessly amusing.
Recently I have been making batches of dark chocolate roasted hazelnut spread to give as holiday gifts to friends and family. I decided to make it myself because I was disappointed with the commercial versions that are available. Nutella was the first chocolate hazelnut spread I ever tried. I enjoyed it, until I read the label and realized it contains palm oil, which is extremely high in unhealthy saturated fat. Nutella also contains artificial vanilla flavor. I prefer real ingredients.
This summer in Umbria Italy, where I was on vacation, I spotted a jar of dark chocolate hazelnut spread in the tiny town of Norcia. The contents almost looked black (compared to Nutella, which is pale brown) and I couldn’t wait to try it. This past fall I cracked open the jar one afternoon to enjoy the Italian Nutella with my tea. I spread the slick brown paste on a lightly salted cracker and–darn. The flavor of hazelnuts was weak, as was the chocolate flavor, despite the spread’s rich, chocolate color.
The good news: it’s incredibly easy to make dark chocolate roasted hazelnut spread at home. What’s more, my version is healthy. Yes, it contains fat from the nuts, but they are protein rich and contain heart healthy monounsaturated fat (the “good” fat that helps reduce the level of LDL or “bad” cholesterol). The chocolate flavor comes from unsweetened cocoa powder, which is fat-free and high in antioxidants. I added some pure hazelnut oil for smoothness, confectioner’s sugar for sweetness, and a pinch of salt to round out the flavors. That was it!
So what do you do with this spread? Well, it makes a tasty little snack smeared on a lightly salted cracker (love that sweet and salty combo). It’s also very good dolloped on banana chunks and spread on ripe pear slices or tangy apple wedges. If you’re feeling French, you can spread it on a fresh baguette. Or, simply eat it straight from the jar on a spoon. Mmmmmm.
Dark Chocolate Roasted Hazelnut Spread (Makes about 7 cups)
You can save time and energy by buying skinned hazelnuts. Simply follow the directions for roasting at the same temperature for the same amount of time.
4 cups raw hazelnuts (or raw skinned hazelnuts)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Valrhona)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons pure hazelnut oil
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Scatter an even portion of hazelnuts (or skinned nuts) on two baking sheets. Roast nuts in oven, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool.
2. If nuts have their skin on, wet a clean tea towel, ring it out, and lay on a counter. Place a few cups of nuts on one half of tea towel. Fold other half of towel over nuts and rub towel back and forth over nuts to remove skins. Place skinned nuts in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Continue rubbing nuts under towel until most of nuts have most of skin removed. (It’s okay if a few nuts have their skin on.)
3. Grind entire portion of nuts in a food processor until mixture becomes gooey, about 5 minutes. Add powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Pulse to blend. Add hazelnut oil and process for 1 minute to create a smooth paste. Transfer mixture to clean, dry jars. Stays fresh in refrigerator for up to 3 or more weeks.
My dear friend K’s mother passed away last week. She was a very special person and much loved. I wanted to bring K’s family some food, but what to bring? This was not a time to impress. This was not the moment to use fancy ingredients, although high-quality ones were a must. I needed food that would taste deeply comforting. Food that would say, ” I love you and am so sorry for your loss.” It also had to be vegetarian.
After much pondering, I made a lentil soup with root vegetables and my husband, John, made a vegetarian lasagna. I also made some triple chocolate cookies because K’s father is especially fond of chocolate.
I didn’t follow any recipe for the soup; I simply made it the way I always do, starting with a big glug of olive oil in my soup pot and then adding chopped leek (or onion) and celery (or fennel). I shook in some dried Italian seasoning, along with dried thyme, and some pepper. I much prefer to use dried herbs in my soups because they impart a more intense flavor than fresh. The vegetables sizzled until soft and brown at which point I added some diced celery root, sliced parsnips, and carrot chunks. Next came a few cups of Puy lentils, which are the small green ones, not the common brown, followed by three boxes of Imagine vegetable broth. Imagine is my favorite brand, since it has the most intense flavor. After the soup had simmered for about half an hour, I added about 6 cloves of minced garlic. This is my trick. I add the minced garlic toward the end of my cooking to yield a sweet garlic flavor. The soup cooked for about thirty minutes more, after which I seasoned it with sea salt. Then I let it cool and refrigerated it overnight to let the flavors meld.
John and I brought our goodies to the family the day after the funeral during shiva. They seemed pleased. In fact, we joined them for dinner. I am not Jewish, but I love the idea that food can bring people together for a joyous moment during such a sad time. As a Christian, many of the memorial services I’ve attended end with a lunch or afternoon tea. But usually the atmosphere is very somber and the food mere sustenance. The lentil soup was homey and warm and made people smile. The lasagna, plump with kale, ricotta, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, was earthy and soulful. The cookies? They seemed to be a hit.
J and I have thrown many dinner parties and received our fair share of compliments for elaborate restaurant-quality menus. But when K’s father saw us to the door as we were leaving and said, “You have no idea how much this meant to me,” I realized it was the best meal we’d ever made.
For the past two days I have been on a candy-dessert caper, scooting around Boston sampling the best sweets for a 2012 article I am writing for Boston Common magazine. This is the part of my job that turns people purple with envy and causes them to say, “God I’d love to do what you do!”
I like dessert, but it’s a treat, as are confections. So spending two consecutive days munching on cupcakes, cake pops, ice cream sundaes, crepes, bonbons, fruit tarts, filled chocolates, macaroons, truffles, shortbread, cookies, and dessert cocktails was incredibly fun, but a tad overwhelming. I suppose an avalanche of anything special can change your view of it.
I was lucky to share my sweet sojourn with a local chocolate maker, Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate in Somerville. He’s incredibly talented and exceedingly nice. He makes bean-to-bar stone ground chocolate in the Mexican style. Very artisanal. Very authentic. Very good.
Alex rode his bike to meet me both days. I worked out extra hard before our tastings. He and I ate lots of leafy greens for dinner in-between our sugar blitz.
Yet more sweets to taste before I do.
Yet more sweets to taste before I do.
Who knew that the art of creating a fragrance resembles cooking a special dish? I learned this the other day when I got together with my sister to create my own perfume as a birthday gift, followed by an elegant lunch.
The perfumer was Neil Morris, who has been developing fragrances for over 30 years for stores like Henri Bendel in New York and individuals like me. His Boston studio contains over 700 oils derived from flowers, roots, tree moss, spices, musk, fruit, and herbs. The scents lie waiting in dark brown bottles and, frankly, contain the memories of life—the smell of favorite flowers, attics, the ocean, baking cookies, and even Christmas. After two hours of sniffing and choosing favorite aromas, Neil began to create the scent, first starting with the anchoring base notes, then the middle notes—the heart of the perfume (which for me was white flowers, like jasmine)—and finally the top notes to add sparkle. It’s a warm, floral perfume with a mysterious, elegant allure.
An hour later, Frank McClelland, chef-owner of L’Espalier was doing a similar thing, only using foods, not oils, to create his masterpieces. His “A Walk through autumn with Apple Street Farm vegetables, almond-honey vinaigrette, toasted seeds and mustard greens” was a symphony of tastes with base notes of bitter greens, pickled fennel and radish, middle notes of shaved carrot and micro-greens in the honey vinaigrette, and finally top notes of toasted pumpkin seeds and almond. A salmon entrée followed the same concept. Bitter braised endive served as the base note, succulent, oily salmon was the middle note, and a swoosh of lemon-pignoli sauce added the bright top note.
An artist, whether a writer, painter, perfumer, or musician, touches people in profound ways. To savor the work of two artists in one day? What a gift.
Do you have a favorite dish or perfume that evokes certain memories?
As I mentioned, we have a small guest in our house, Abner the mouse. He likes to eat all kinds of people food, including bananas. They appear to be a favorite fruit. Here, you can see how he’s nibbled off the end of a banana.
I know, it sounds revolting to have a mouse in your house, let alone notice its eating habits, and name it. Friends and family tell me I should set traps. The problem? I love animals and have become rather fond of our little friend. He has good taste. He’s discriminating. He likes whole-wheat pasta over white. The other day he got into my dark chocolate chips. Ah, a creature after my own heart.
So in lieu of traps, I have elected to cover, seal, wrap, and box anything Abner could nibble through. Each night I usually cover our fruit bowl with a huge wooden salad bowl. To Abner’s surprise and delight, the other night I forgot.
Late fall on Cape Ann offers the most glorious skies…this one appeared on Thanksgiving Day late in the afternoon. Shortly after our meal, I headed outside for a walk and came upon this enchanting swath of butterscotch, persimmon and rose behind a silhouette of trees. Nature never ceases to awe me.
Speaking of persimmons, I currently am writing a story about this orange-red fruit for the November-December 2012 issue of Vegetarian Times. The magazine needs to photograph my recipes this year, while persimmons are in season (October through February). These ones are the sweet Fuyu persimmons, which look like tomatoes and are firm when ripe. The Japanese Hachiya persimmons are less squat and have a more pointed bottom. They also must be jelly-soft before eating or they’ll pucker your mouth. You can eat the skin on both kinds of persimmons and the fruit has a mild sweet flavor and slippery-soft texture.
I love them in salads, particularly cut into thin wedges and tossed with arugula, aged goat cheese, toasted pistachio nuts, chopped fennel, and a balsamic vinaigrette.
They’re also tasty as a salsa to enjoy with grilled pork or chicken. Simply dice one and toss it with some chopped avocado, minced fresh cilantro, fresh lime juice, hot sauce, and sea salt.
This is my first post to my new blog! Here I will share with you a sneak peek into the life of a food and travel writer–the funny, crazy, exciting, messy, and inspiring behind-the-scenes things that occur in my kitchen and elsewhere.
Joining me on occasion will be friends and family, including my husband, John. Oh, and also Abner, an adorable, walnut-colored mouse, who has decided that nothing is more tasty than the ingredients tucked away in the pantry of a food writer.
I appreciate your stopping by and look forward to getting to know you.