Monday, August 6, 2012

NIce to see you again

Hello, friends. Guess what? I moved to Colorado!! I’ve lived in a handful of choice places in my young life – Mendocino, Portland, Santa Barbara, San Francisco – but this is my first time living anywhere so far from the West coast. I now reside in the town of Boulder, CO, and I still can’t quite believe I’m here. I'll always be a California girl at heart, but I'm going to try out being a Colorado resident, and see how it goes. I'm hoping for the best! I moved here with my sister, and we got a pretty sweet spot, if you ask me (thank you, Kyla). We even have a gas stove and loads of counter space (two things that are surprisingly hard to find). Moving was quite the ordeal, and I'm still dealing with the toll it took on me physically, but being here makes it all seem worth it. 



While it’s been challenging adjusting to the weather here, I've been having fun exploring this new place. It's funny because when I visited last November to check out the city and look for apartments, it was snowy and freezing, which everyone told us hardly ever happened (seriously?). Then when we arrived in June, it was crazy hot! And there were wildfires! Of course, everyone has been telling us it never gets this hot. Then there are these thunderstorms here that seem to start out of the blue, with lightening like I’ve never seen it before. Anyhow, the skies are very dramatic here, and it can be both disconcerting and strangely exciting at the same time. They're always changing, and often beautiful.


I started cooking about a week after we got here, and I haven’t slowed down much since, even with the heat. The farmer’s market here is great, and the size sort of reminds me of the one in Santa Barbara I used to go to. In fact, Boulder reminds me of Santa Barbara in other ways too, apart from the weather. Pearl street downtown is like Santa Barbara’s State Street, and where in SoCal you have the beach/surf culture, here you have the mountain/snow/outdoor culture. Both are food-centric, health-conscious places, and both are college towns. Both have an laid-back but upscale vibe, at least in certain areas. So it feels a bit familiar here, yet completely new - I like that. 



My first forays into high-altitude baking have been interesting, but most have been relatively successful. When I first read about all the adjustments you have to make at 3,000 feet and above (we’re at about 5,500), I got a little freaked out, but as I said I haven’t had too many disasters thus far. Recipes just require a little bit of tweaking, that’s all. The blueberry muffins I tried from the Joy the Baker Cookbook came out great, as did some oat raspberry ginger scones, and a French yogurt cake that I made exactly four years ago for my food writing class at UCSB. Once again, the center of the cake fell as soon as I took it out of the oven, but it was still delicious - intensely lemony and delicately fragrant. 


I’ve also been doing a lot of non-cooking, that is, making various frozen delights (ice creams, sorbets, popsicles, etc) and a few drinks. Let me just say that if you have yet had a Mojito in your life, you best make it happen, and soon. You need mint, limes, white rum, simple syrup and ice, so start making a list. Lemonade is always appropriate, too. As for popsicles, well, I never thought I even liked them that much till this summer; when it’s 90 degrees at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, you need something cold and/or boozy to get you through the next two hours, or you might just melt. That’s when a watermelon popsicle sounds too good to be true. Or a smashed berry-coconut pop (incredible). Have something sweet and icy in your freezer at all times, and you’ll breeze right through July, ready for whatever comes next.


Which brings me to one of my favorite times of year, anywhere – peach season. If there’s one fruit that gets me a little weak in the knees even thinking about, it’s the peach. A ripe peach feels pleasantly heavy in your palm, but soft to the touch. Though my favorite way to eat them is straight out of my hand, I love a good peach tart (made this one recently), or a baked peach with honey and a dot of butter. Peaches and cream is downright heavenly. Cherries, I should say, make a close second in my hierarchy of fruit, but to me there is nothing better than stone fruit. It takes some searching to find one truly special, which for me is always more alluring in the end. Even the prettiest specimens from the market can be dull and flavorless, but for every dud I know there is a perfect one out there waiting to be picked, then swiftly devoured. So before I ramble on some more, go find yourself a perfect peach, and tell me don’t you live for that taste each summer.

Hello, August. 
Nice to see you again. It's been far too long!

PS. I joined Instagram recently - you can find me at @acaciamichelle if you're so inclined. 
I'm also on Pinterest, you can find me at http://pinterest.com/acaciamichelle/

Sunday, February 26, 2012

All that waiting

I feel happiest when I'm in the kitchen. Even when things get chaotic and rushed, even when I'm trying to do ten things at once and timers are beeping at me, I still feel at peace in that tiny space of ours. It seems as though it's the most natural place to be, at 6:30 pm on a weekday, standing among the whisks and spoons, the pots and the pans and the cupboards filled with good things I have yet to get my paws on. Even the least glamorous of tasks -- say, the stirring of risotto over a hot stove -- are sometimes my favorite parts. To me, it can be decidedly meditative, all that stirring, all that waiting.


Springtime officially begins in a few weeks, and all I want to do is cook. That, and pore over cookbooks, daydreaming about my next project. I do have a new method-to-my-madness, shall we way, which is to accumulate a good amount of fresh produce and pantry items and see what I can come up with in a matter of hours. I know this is what my mother has been doing for her entire life, and what chefs do everyday, but it's a rather new concept for me. While it's true that during farmer's market season I do do some 'random' purchasing, it always scares me a bit. I have to admit, though, it's extremely satisfying, in a much different way then simply gathering ingredients for a previously chosen recipe.

So when my mom came home with a bundle of asparagus the other day, I remembered a Ina Garten recipe I had filed away awhile back for a 'Spring Green Risotto.' I got inspired. It sounded like the perfect dish for the interim between winter and spring, when it's looks so tempting outside but in fact it's still quite blustery and cold. Luckily, we had most of ingredients already in the house, including Arborio rice, as well as the usual risotto suspects like Parmesan and dry white wine.


Usually when I find myself with some asparagus, I want to highlight it in some way, so it's really the star of the plate, like in this, or this. But since it isn't actually asparagus season yet and what we're getting now is probably from somewhere south of the border, risotto seemed like a good use for it. Since it's studded with bits of green it's not too heavy, and it has a warming quality you look for in late February. Yes, it does require some focused stirring, as mentioned before, but it's rather fun, once you get the hang of it. All that waiting builds excitement, the same anticipation that comes in the days just before March begins, with pink blossoms and much-needed rain. It doesn't have to be boring. The rice gets thirsty every few minutes so you have to calm it down with ladlefuls of chicken stock, and then watch it slowly absorb the liquid. Believe me, it's fascinating stuff! I do like the seasonal additions of leeks and peas (albeit frozen) here, too. Ina is an ardent lemon lover like me so she calls for both the juice and the zest of the fruit, which I also love. I did omit the fennel because I'm not sure I like cooked fennel. I left out the mascarpone too, and I cut the salt in half, which I routinely do with all of Ina's recipes now. I adore her, but she is a salt fanatic


Unfortunately for me, my stomach is having none of this cooking-frenzy business. I cannot even begin to tell you all the things I've been making lately, it would make your head spin (short ribs(!), more cookies(!), pad thai(!), citrus marmalade(!) baked oatmeal(!) - see what I mean?!)* For some reason I can only handle very small meals lately, and though I've been craving rich foods, I can only take them in small doses. This (coupled with the fact that I live in just a two-person household) makes the probability of leftovers quite high, so I've been learning to at least tolerate their existence. I even made risotto cakes last night, and I was grateful to have them. Plus, let's face it, I was worn out, and I wanted to get back to my writing, another thing that makes me happy. Crusty outsides, creamy insides, it was comfort food, Italian-style. Hmmm. Pretty classy for a hum-drum Saturday night, I must say. 


Spring Green Risotto
Adapted from Ina Garten


1 1/2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 Tablespoons butter
2 leeks, washed and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
2/3 cups dry white wine
4-5 cups chicken stock, warmed
1 bunch asparagus, chopped into 1 1/4 inch lengths
10 oz frozen peas
1 tablespoon lemon zest (about one large lemon)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped chives or green onion tops


Blanch the asparagus in boiling, salted water until tender, about 4 minutes. Plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside. 


Heat oil and butter in a medium to large heavy-duty saucepan over medium heat. Once hot, add leeks and toss to coat. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until tender. Add rice and toss to coat for one minute. Pour in the wine and stir until absorbed. 


Add 2 ladlefuls of warm stock and then stir risotto until it is almost dry. Continue adding stock in this manner until rice is al dente, stirring almost constantly with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon - this usually takes 15-20 minutes. Add asparagus, peas, zest, salt and pepper and cook until rice is done, tasting often. It should be very creamy. Add parmesan, lemon juice and chives, cover, and let stand a minute or two. Serve immediately with extra parmesan. 


Serves 6, generously.


* Check out of my Flickr page for a glimpse of some of these projects. I'm particularly fond of a series I took with some tangerines in a brown paper bag. Afternoon light with an orangey glow, caught in a paper sack. Do take a look. 


A couple more things to check out: 
- I love listening to the Joy the Baker Podcast every week. It's not just about food, it has some 'real life' talk too, as they would put it. 
- I'm obsessed with this picture. So gorgeous.