On Mavens and Simple Pleasures

I’ve been trying to be better about blogging more regularly lately, though I’ve been very busy.  Part of that has included thinking about the raison d’être of the blog.  At first I intended it to be a librarian blog, but I also really enjoy blogging about other things that I think people might find interesting.  Given that I’m pretty eccentric, those “other things” include pretty diverse topics.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s intriguing book The Tipping Point, a recommendation from my best friend.  The book basically discusses how ideas go viral, from a couple people doing something to it becoming a major fad.  Part of his thesis is that ideas spread via a small number of people who play specialized roles:

  • connectors, who know many people across multiple diverse groups and thus are able to spread ideas from one subculture to another;
  • mavens, or “information specialists,” who gather knowledge and take great pleasure in sharing it with other people;
  • and salesmen with strong powers of persuasion and negotiation.

As soon as I read this, I immediately identified with the role of the maven.  This, of course, is why I became a teacher, and then a librarian.  It’s why I write reviews on Yelp and blog about things I find interesting and pin pictures of things I like on Pinterest.  People who meet me even in passing flock to me for information, which I have to admit I kind of like.  I once met a girl at a party and we started talking about how she could never figure out where she was in Dallas, and how I had driven all over and really knew my way around.  From that day forward, I don’t think I ever saw her again, but every once in awhile I’d get a call or a text message from her when she was lost or wondered if I maybe knew a way around a bad traffic jam (and I could almost always help).  So in the spirit of being a maven, I’ve decided that I am going to talk about library stuff, but I’m also going to blog about whatever random things I find interesting and hope that some people get something out of it.  (I’m also planning on redesigning the page to make it a little easier to see just certain parts of the content.)

The thing that’s on my mind at the moment is simple pleasures in life on a budget.  One of my friends recently commented that he envied the sense of peace and calm I seem to enjoy.  In truth, I’m pretty high-strung when it comes to a lot of things, but I consider it very important to take time out to enjoy the simple things on a regular basis.  Living in Los Angeles is expensive, so since I can’t afford to go all out, I try to find little things that I really enjoy, which I shall share here from time to time.

Tonight I’ll mention Cristalino Brut Cava.  Usually when I say I’m drinking champagne, I’m actually drinking this (since I don’t think most people really know or care what the distinction between a cava and a champagne is anyway).  I’ve been able to find it for between $6 and $8 a bottle.  Pop a $7 champagne stopper on it and it’ll last for a week in the fridge, so even if you live alone you can enjoy just a single glass a night and not waste any.  And a glass of champagne only has 80 calories, if you worry about that kind of thing.  Cristalino is tasty enough to drink by itself, but I also like adding a dash of amaretto or creme de cassis.  The latter is called a kir royale, and is one of my favorite drinks.

Whenever I pop the cork on anything sparkling, whether I’m alone or in a group, I always say “woohoo!”  I do the same if I am out somewhere and hear someone else opening a bottle (although in that case I do it quietly to avoid having people think I’m insane).  It makes every bottle feel like a celebration.  A glass of it is cheap, and it doesn’t have that many calories or that much alcohol, so it’s a simple pleasure that you don’t have to feel bad about and can enjoy even on a budget.

Quick Sips: Quarante-Quatre (Forty-Four)

 

When I was living in France, I spent a weekend with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  They were the parents of an acquaintance back in Dallas, who had given me their number before I left and said I should call them if I got down to the south of France.  I figured it was one of those things you do to be polite, and I’d probably never end up actually meeting them, but when I did find myself in the south of France, I gave them a call.  I figured at the most maybe we would meet for coffee or something, but before I knew it, my friend Shannon and I were on the bus to their tiny town (Vacqueyras) in one of my favorite wine regions of France (the Rhone).  We spent the entire weekend at their beautiful home, enjoying the most generous hospitality I’ve ever ever known.  They threw a party and invited their whole family, and my friend’s little nephews performed for us an adorable French song about a puppy and a kitty (words I didn’t know in French until I heard that song).  They took us to their neighbor’s incredible wine store because they knew I was into wine.  They took us to sight-see in some very cool nearby villages.  They even drove us several hours each way to spend a day at the austere and windy beaches at Aigues-Mortes, which translates to “dead waters,” a part of France where they have rice paddies and wild flamingos.  Seriously, nicest people ever.  But I digress.

Our hosts, Aldo and Evelyne, were excellent cooks and had so much good wine around you wouldn’t believe it.  But of the things I drank and ate there, one of the most interesting was a liqueur they called quarante-quatre, which translates to forty-four.  It was thus named because it was made by taking eau-de-vie and aging it for 44 days with an orange, 44 cloves, 44 cubes of sugar, and 44 coffee beans.  And let me tell you, that stuff was strong, but incredibly tasty.

After having great success with making my own limoncello the last couple summers, I wanted to try to make some quarante-quatre for the fall.  Even though I still remembered Evelyne’s easy recipe, I looked up some recipes online to see if there were things people were substituting for eau-de-vie, which is a catch-all term for any fermented fruit brandy.  There are lots of different eaux-de-vie, including Calvados (apple brandy) and Poire Williams (pear brandy).  They’re common in France, but harder to find and often pretty expensive here in the US.  I suspected the one in this recipe was a grape eau-de-vie.  It had a mild enough flavor that I thought I could substitute vodka for it, which many people had done in their recipes, but I also noticed that none of them followed the exact recipe Evelyne had given me.  Some excluded the sugar cubes, some excluded the coffee beans, some called for different quantities of things, and some suggested aging it for a different period of time.

I wanted to go with what I’d been told, so that’s exactly what I did, and it ended up being incredibly good.  If anything, it’s better even than I remember.  I made a double batch because I wanted to give some to a few people for Christmas, and it’s really the perfect flavor for holiday gift-giving.  All of the different flavors alone seem just right for winter, but together, they’re like the antidote to cold weather in a glass.  It’s spicy, orange-y, and a little earthy from the coffee, and it’s so rich that I don’t think you’d ever guess that it started its life as vodka.

If you’re going to drink it straight, serve it very cold.  I keep mine in the fridge, but I think you could probably even keep it in the freezer.  If it’s warm, it tastes very strong and not as pleasant, but it’s one of those things that still manages to warm you up even when you drink it cold. I also tried it in eggnog, which turned out to be incredibly good.  I just unceremoniously dumped mine into the eggnog-in-a-carton from the grocery store, but if you actually made homemade eggnog and used quarante-quatre in it, I think it would be incredible.  You could probably cut back on the sugar in the eggnog if you were making it by hand, as the quarante-quatre has some sweetness in it.  This would also be good as a substitute in any drink that calls for an orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Gran Gala, etc) or a coffee/espresso liqueur.  Perhaps a spiced-orange espresso martini, or quarante-quatre hot chocolate with whipped cream and dark chocolate curls?

A note on using vodka to make infused liqueurs: you don’t want to use something expensive for this – that’s a waste of good vodka.  On the other hand, you don’t want to use some cheap, nasty stuff that’s going to impart a weird flavor, either.  When I do infusions, I generally use Smirnoff.  It’s a nice balance of price and quality for a project like this.

Quarante-Quatre
makes about 750 mL

1 750 mL bottle of vodka
1 medium orange
44 whole cloves
44 sugar cubes
44 whole Italian or other dark roast coffee beans

  1. Clean a very large, wide-mouthed jar of at least 1 L capacity.  It’s okay if there’s going to be some space at the top of your jar above the level of the liquid.  Make sure the mouth is nice and wide – you need to be able to fit the orange in there whole.  You probably won’t want to keep your quarante-quatre in the jar once it’s all done, so you might want to save the vodka bottle to reuse it later.
  2. Stick the 44 cloves into the orange and place the orange inside the jar.  If it’s a tight fit, some of your cloves might fall off, but don’t worry about it.  Just make sure they all get into the jar.
  3. Place the rest of the ingredients in the jar, cover tightly, and let sit in a cool, dark place for 44 days.  The sugar cubes will take several days or even weeks to dissolve.  Some of the cloves might fall out of the oranges, but that’s not a problem either.
  4. After 44 days, shake the jar well.  Remove the orange and pour the liquid through a strainer into a bottle, discarding the coffee beans and cloves.  Enjoy and toast with your friends as the French do, saying “santé” (to your health).

Not-Really Portuguese Kale Soup

These tasty veggies from my South Central Farmers CSA (except for the potatoes), and were the ingredients in my tasty Portuguese soup.

One of the things I love about living in LA is that I can get great local produce.  I don’t take advantage of this as much as I should, but I’m trying to make it a habit to buy local more often.  In the past, I’ve really enjoyed getting CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes, which contain a mix of veggies and/or fruits from a local farm.  Typically they’re very reasonably priced, and I feel like the one I use (South Central Farmers) is a great value – I don’t think you’d be able to buy all of those things individually for the price you pay for a CSA box, either at a farmers market or at a regular grocery store.  What I’ve shown in the picture there is a mere fraction of what this box contained.

However, the challenge for a person who’s cooking for one is to try to eat all this food before it goes bad.  Maybe for someone with a bigger appetite or a greater love for vegetables, but for me, there’s no way.  Thus, I try to think of interesting ways of preserving things for the long term.  I’ve tried canning a couple times, but I’m so neurotic that I get terrified I’m going to give myself botulism.  Of course, being a medical librarian, I’ve looked up the facts on this.  According to the CDC, these days foodborne botulism is both very rare (of just 145 botulism cases in the US on average each year, only 15% or 22 cases are related to food) and not generally fatal (only 3-5% of cases are fatal).  Still, there are other ways to preserve things that are much easier!

I decided a good way to use up several of the vegetables in something that was easy to freeze was a soup, especially for those cold, biting Los Angeles winter days (ha). The email that I’d gotten earlier in the week had said there would be kale in the box, so I was thinking maybe a Portuguese-style kale soup.  The one I ended up making was a variation on a recipe from some place called Gertrude’s Gallery that was featured on Rachael Ray’s $40 a Day Show.  Several people were complaining in the comments that this wasn’t a traditional Portuguese kale soup, but I thought it sounded good and it also called for other veggies that I was expecting in the basket (carrots, turnips, and parsley).

When I got the box, naturally, it didn’t have kale in it.  The boxes are packed depending on what’s available, so sometimes your box doesn’t have exactly what the email earlier in the week said.  Instead, there was some broccoli, which I was happy to see, but it didn’t exactly do much good for this soup, for which I’d already gotten the other ingredients.  Luckily, they’d left the greens on the turnips, and I was pretty sure it would work out to substitute one bitter leafy green for another.  A quick glance in one of my favorite kitchen reference books, The Food Substitutions Bible, confirmed this was the case, and it actually turned out so good, possibly even better than I think kale might have been.  The turnip greens seem a little more delicate and maybe slightly less bitter than kale.  Plus, I love that I used pretty much the whole turnip.

The other thing that wasn’t quite to plan was the chourico.  I think this must be similar to the hard, cured chorizo, but I wasn’t able to find that.  Instead, I had to go with the uncooked kind, which came in a strange plastic casing that had to be removed before cooking (obviously).  It practically disintegrated over the course of the time that it simmered, but it actually ended up working out fine.  The spices from the sausage flavored the broth and made it just the tiniest bit spicy and very delicious.

This would be best served with a crusty piece of fresh-baked bread and a nice Portuguese wine.  I had neither tonight, but I have a Duoro that I’ve been wanting to open, so maybe next time.  I froze a bunch in 12 ounce mason jars, which looked like about a serving,  so whenever I decide I want it, I can just pop a jar in the fridge to defrost before I go to work, and then it’s ready to warm up when I get home.

Update, 1/24 – having now eaten this as a leftover, I would leave the beans out next time.  They were good the first time around, but had a weird texture the second night.  Also, if you make this ahead and refrigerate it, you can take the layer of fat off the top to make this healthier and just as delicious.

Not-Really Portuguese Soup

adapted from Gertrude’s Gallery/Rachael Ray recipe

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 onion, diced
3 turnips, diced (about 1/2 a cup)
5 smallish carrots, diced (about 1/2 a cup)
6 ounces chopped chorizo
the greens from the 3 turnips, coarsely chopped (remove as much of the stem as possible)
3 bay leaves
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
6 cups beef stock
1 15-oz can kidney beans
1 tomato, diced
1 potato, diced

  1. In a large stock pot, warm the oil over medium high heat, and then cook the garlic, onion, turnips (bot NOT the greens!), and carrots. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add the chorizo and cook for 2 minutes.
  3. Add the turnip greens, bay leaves, and parsley leaves and stir to combine all ingredients.
  4. Add the beef stock, beans, and tomato, stir, and bring to a boil.  After the soup has reached a boil, turn the heat down to simmer for about 35-40 minutes.
  5. In the meantime, bring salted water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Cook the potatoes for ten minutes and drain.
  6. After the soup has simmered for 35-40 minutes, remove from heat and add potatoes.  Remove the bay leaves.
  7. Serve warm with Portuguese wine and crusty bread.  Yum!

Quick Sips: Lillet Blanc

I’ve decided my blog should have a new feature, which I will call Quick Sips, in which I briefly review or tell about a tasty adult beverage.  Tonight: Lillet Blanc.

Lillet Blanc: if it’s good enough for James Bond and
Hannibal Lecter, it’s good enough for me.

Lillet (prounounced lee-lay) Blanc is a French concoction that blends Bordeaux white wines (including Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and Semillon) with citrus liqueurs.  The result is an aperitif (in other words, a beverage meant to be drunk before a meal) that is light, slightly sweet, a little bit herbaceous, and very tasty.  It’s best served very cold and is one of the few wines you can, and in fact should, serve over ice.  It goes against all my instincts to do this, but yes, I am sipping a glass of it now with three ice cubes in it, and quite enjoying it. If anything, I wish it was colder – I popped mine in the freezer as soon as I brought it home and evidently didn’t wait long enough.  Although the bottle is beautiful and I’d love to have it out on my bar, this will take up permanent residence in the freezer for practical purposes.

Although perfectly lovely on its own, Lillet Blanc also serves as an ingredient in some well-known drinks, the most notable of which is the Vesper.  First described in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Casino Royale (it also appears in the movie), the Vesper is named after Vesper Lynd, who is my favorite Bond girl because she’s super smart and played by the gorgeous Eva Green in the movie.  It’s made according to these specifications from Monsieur Bond: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”  Dr. Hannibal Lecter prefers to keep it simple: his favorite drink is Lillet Blanc on the rocks with a slice of orange.

I picked up my Lillet Blanc from the liqueur aisle of BevMo (where they also carried Lillet Rouge, a version made with red Bordeaux wines that I may try later) for $17.99.  Not bad for something that’s probably going to last quite a long time in my freezer.

Mushroom Ragu from My Past

Dinner for one: homemade mushroom ragu inspired by a meal from my past.

There used to be this restaurant called Paris Vendome in Dallas’s West Village, back in the early 2000s.  This was back in the days after I’d been to France for the first time and knew I was in love with it, but I hadn’t actually gone to live there yet.  At the end of 2004, after I knew that I’d be going to live in Caen the following February, I used to go out to Paris Vendome by myself and have tasty meals and imagine I was already in France.  I can’t remember if they had escargot (it’s always a big thing for me to find a restaurant that has really good, authentic escargot, and I haven’t found one in LA yet), but what I do remember was this fantastic wild mushroom ragu that I often got for my main course.

I’d completely forgotten about this tasty meal until I was making some mushroom ragu tonight.  Mine doesn’t live up to my memory of what I had at Paris Vendome, but it was still pretty good and relatively easy.  I had previously found a recipe online and had picked up all of the ingredients, but then before I had a chance to make it, I lost the recipe and was too lazy to find it again.  So armed with the ingredients I knew I would need and some general knowledge of cooking, I set about making my own mushroom ragu. While most mushroom ragus would call for cream, this one is slightly healthier in that it uses a roux (a thickener made  with melted butter and flour) to give it its creaminess instead.  Note that I say slightly healthier. 🙂

In case you want to play along at home, here’s the recipe.  Like I said, it’s not as good as what I remember, but I may try this again and do some tweaking.  Even as is, it was pretty tasty, in my humble opinion.  I had it with a Vacqueryas that was nice but turned out being way fruitier than what I would have gone for.  Wish I would have had a nice syrah instead.

Also, here’s a good kitchen tip for you.  Get a nice medium coarseness microplane grater and a block of parmesan for whenever you want parmesan on something.  This is way better than that creepy powdered stuff you get in the little tube, and it really doesn’t take that much longer just to pull out the grater and quickly grade a little of the fresh on whatever you’re eating.  Fresh parmesan lasts practically forever.  I just keep mine in a tupperware container in the fridge and it takes like two seconds to add a nice gourmet touch to your meal.

Mushroom Ragu
(serves about four)

24 ounces mushrooms such as baby bella, portabella, or button, sliced (I used a combo of baby bella and white button)
2 shallots, minced
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tbs sage, roughly chopped
5 Tbs salted butter, divided
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs flour
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef or veggie broth (beef broth would be richer, but obviously if you want this to be a vegetarian meal, you could go with the veggie)

  1. Melt half the butter in a large pot over medium high.  Add all the mushrooms and the olive oil and cook for a couple minutes until the mushrooms start to shrink and get softer.  Add the shallots, garlic, and sage, and cook, stirring occasionally.  The mushrooms should start to release some juices and get softer.
  2. In a medium pan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat.  Once the butter has completely melted, whisk in the flour.  You need to move quickly in this next part – you should have already measured out your liquids and be ready to go, or else you could burn your roux.  Whisk in the wine and broth until it’s well incorporated with the roux.
  3. Carefully pour the sauce into the mushroom mixture.  Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The sauce should thicken and reduce by about half.  Salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Serve over rigatoni and top with fresh grated parmesan cheese.  Pretend you are in Paris, and enjoy.

Lavender-Almond Shortbread

While my mom and I were in Switzerland in June 2009, our first stop was Lausanne, where we arrived the day after Roger Federer won the French Open. This became handy when we received star treatment around the whole country thanks to our fortunate last name (and yes, he is actually a distant relative. Really distant).

In Lausanne, there is a lovely pedestrian area, and on the corner, a tea store had a walk-up window where they were selling delicious shortbread cookies with different kinds of tea baked into them. The tea was coarsely ground and mixed in the dough, which gave a pleasant little crunch and delicately perfumed the cookie. I know it might sound odd to eat largish bits of tea leaves, it’s actually something I’ve very much enjoyed ever since I first tried it in San Francisco. Then, it was in the form of a cardamom-bergamot bread pudding that was flavored with Earl Grey leaves, from a really, really wonderful tea room near the Castro called Samovar.

It took a long time for me to get around to baking these cookies. I came back from France in summer 2010 with some delicious Kusmi almond green tea. To me, it looks and tastes more like a black tea than a green tea, but either way, the almond is the dominant flavor. Taking a whiff of the leaves is not that different from taking a whiff of almond extract. Anyway, I brought home a big tin of it and was thinking about how I could use it in recipes, and these shortbread cookies came to mind.

The recipe is modified from a Martha Stewart recipe for Earl Grey Shortbread. The first time I made it, I coarsely ground the tea with a mortar and pestle. The second time I decided to throw some lavender flowers in, too, which turned out to be a nice touch. I was worried that it might be too flowery, especially because the lavender flowers didn’t really crush much in the mortar and pestle, but it turned out subtle enough for me. Make sure you use real butter in these! In my opinion, European butter like President and Plugra are the best, and it makes a big difference in getting a rich, buttery cookie.

Lavender-Almond Shortbread Cookies

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2-1/2 Tablespoons ground tea leaves (in this case, I used 1 T lavender flowers and about 1.5 T Kusmi almond green tea)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room-temperature
1/2 cup confectioner’s (powdered) sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, tea, and salt in a small bowl.
2. Cream the butter with the sugar in a stand mixer. Let it mix for about 3 minutes (that seemed excessive to me, but it makes a huge difference in making the cookies lighter and fluffier).
3. Thoroughly mix in the flour mixture.
4. Turn dough out onto a sheet of parchment paper or wax paper. Form into a single log and use the paper to wrap it and form it into a roughly circular shape. At this point, you may choose to bake them right away or chill them. The original recipe says to chill for at least half an hour, but I find it easier to cut the dough when it’s still room-temperature.
5. When you’re ready to bake, cut logs into about 1/4 inch slices and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat.
6. Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned on top, about 13-15 minutes.

I got a little more than a dozen onto my cookie sheet, and I wrapped up the rest in parchment paper and put it in a plastic bag in the freezer. There was too much for me to throw away, but not enough for me to be seriously bothered if it didn’t turn out. I’m not sure when I’ll get around to baking them, but I will let you know what I find out when I try it!

Winter Granola

Photo courtesy of Closet Cooking.  That’s right, this isn’t actually my granola.
Next time I make it, I’ll snap a pic and add it.

Inspired by a post about granola by my favorite food blogger, Chocolate and Zucchini, I decided to make some of my own this afternoon. I wanted to do a pumpkin pie spice granola, but I realized that my spice shelf is sadly lacking – no ginger, no cloves, and a lot of other key spices missing. What I do have are some odd things – Chinese star anise, Spanish sweet paprika, saffron, and lavender flowers.

Anyway, the closest I came was cinnamon and cardamom. I added these to some rolled oats. I found a bag of Trader Joe’s candied pecans in my cupboard, and I chopped those up and tossed them in, too. Finally, in went agave nectar and a bit of canola oil. All it takes is mixing it all up and throwing in the oven for a half hour or so. I was going to add some chocolate chips after it came out of the oven and had cooled, but then I decided I should probably try to make the granola at least reasonably healthy. 🙂

It all turned out tasting so good, and the spices make me think of winter. Thus, I give you:

Winter Granola

3 cups rolled oats
half a package Trader Joe’s candied pecans, coarsely chopped (or about a cup of chopped regular pecans)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
6 tablespoons agave nectar (maple syrup would probably be good, too)

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, then stir the oil and agave nectar in using a fork. Spread the granola over a large, lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees, stirring every 10 minutes, until granola is lightly toasted – it won’t be crispy yet, but sitting out to cool will make it crisp up. The stirring every 10 minutes part is very important! You don’t want burned granola.

Sushi-rama

Yum. My first attempt at sushi yielded results that were tasty, but a little difficult to eat because I WAY overstuffed my rolls. They are, from roughly top to bottom/left to right: tuna roll, 7-spiced salmon roll, and California roll.

The hardest part was cleaning up all the dishes this yielded. What a mess.