..........a blog about food, travel, gardening, and living the good life in Arizona.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

L is for lemons, life and love

Though I haven’t written for a long time, I still love life and writing. Here’s the fix. When creativity wanes and life is giving me lemons, I turn to a beloved dessert — lemon sponge pie. It’s sweet, light and comforting. So good, in fact, it may have the magical power to unlock writer’s block (testing this theory).

Today, March 14, is also Pi Day… pie without the e. Pi Day is celebrated on March 14 (3/14) around the world (who knew?). Pi (the Greek letter Π) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159. Thus we have, March 14, and the perfect day to make pie and celebrate! Let me be honest here, a deep understanding of mathematics is definitely, not my super power! But pie making? Yea, I got this!

Lemon sponge pie is an old Pennsylvania Dutch favorite. Recipes for it can still be found in most Amish, Mennonite or Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks published these days, attesting to its popularity. 

The sponge part of this pie is created when the egg whites are beaten separately and then folded into the other batter ingredients. This process creates a layer of lemon custard on the bottom of the baked pie with a light, spongy, cake-like layer on the top. 

Recipes vary in the amounts of sugar to egg to lemon juice ratio but are otherwise the same. I make smaller pies so the 2-egg version with 3/4 cup of sugar worked best for me. Some of the older recipes just call for the juice of a lemon or 2 along with the zest. I favor recipes that give exact quantities; i.e., 1/4 cup of lemon juice instead of ‘the juice of 2 lemons’ for the obvious reason that not all lemons are the same size. Here is the version I made for a recent event. It’s sweet and tart, just right and very light. It received rave reviews! The following recipe makes one 8-inch or one 9-inch pie plus one custard cup* (no crust).

Lemon Sponge Pie

3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (I used Meyer lemons here, but regular lemons are fine)
2 tsp. lemon zest
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup melted, unsalted butter
1/8 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
2 large egg whites
One 8-inch or 9-inch unbaked pie crust

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix together the sugar and flour. Add the lemon juice and zest, egg yolks, butter, and salt. Mix well with a whisk. Stir in the milk. Beat egg whites until firm; fold into batter**. Pour into prepared pie crust. 

For one 8-inch pie plus one custard cup: Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the heat and bake 35 minutes more at 350 degrees.

For one 9-inch pie: Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the heat and bake 45-50 minutes more at 350 degrees or until pie springs back to a light touch. Cool on a rack then refrigerator for a few hours to firm up the custard. This pie is especially nice in the Spring, for Easter or Mother’s Day or heck, any day you need a little sweetness in your life. Enjoy!

*I like to make 8-inch pies so when there is extra batter, I butter a small custard cup, fill it with remaining batter and bake it alongside the pie. It’s a nice treat for me if I’m giving the pie away with the added bonus of taste testing the baked filling without cutting into the pie.

** If the egg whites are overly beaten, they can become dry and create clumps of egg white that are difficult to incorporate into the batter without compromising the lightness. If this happens, it’s not a disaster, the separate layers just may not be as distinct in the finished pie; it will still be light, airy and delicious anyway. Promise.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

K is for Ketchup

'Still been gardening all this time, but now I'm starting to harvest... tomatoes, no less so K is for ketchup! I found this ketchup recipe on Jay DeMay's blog. She has recipes for paleo and whole30 (right in line with my current eating plan) so I tried her ketchup recipe using my home-grown tomatoes. I love ketchup on so many things, but most store-bought varieties have too much sugar for me.

Using my latest tomato harvest, I whipped up a batch today using Cherokee purple, Costoluto Genovese and smaller stupice and punta banda. First, I cored the tomatoes, then chopped them and cooked them in a big pot until they were quite soft, about 30 minutes. After they cooled, I ran the whole batch through a ricer to remove the seeds and skin. It worked like a charm with a resultant velvety smooth tomato puree.

Jay's recipe calls for canned roasted tomatoes which I would have used too but I had fresh so that's what I went with. I've made ketchup before so I added some extra spices that I've used in previous batches. In her photos, the ketchup looks chunky but I wanted mine to be smooth like regular ketchup so I pureed it in the Vitamix. The taste and texture were perfect with just enough sweetness! Here's my recipe

Paleo Whole30 Compliant Ketchup 

  • 1/2 cup chopped, pitted dates
  • 1 6-oz can tomato paste
  • 1-1/2 cups of fresh tomato puree (cooked)
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup bone broth or water
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon each of smokey paprika, cayenne, ground cloves, and ground black pepper
  1. Add all ingredients to a small saucepan.
  2. Cook on medium low for 30 minutes and then turn heat off.
  3. When cool, add tomato pulp to a ricer to remove the seeds and skin.
  4. Blend in Vitamix for smoothest consistency.
  5. Store in mason jars or similar jars in the fridge for 2-3 weeks. Yields 3 cups.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

J is for Jesus

I had planned to write about the vegetable, jicama in keeping with my food-themed A-Z writing project which has now gone woefully unpopulated due to my current gardening obsession. ‘Had my jicama salad recipe all ready to go and photos were taken, but then yesterday while sorting through some older digital photos, I came across a photo that changed my J word. It’s a photo I took a few years ago of a wooden-carved bust of Jesus. It must be a sign I kid myself as today is Palm Sunday, the celebration of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. What could be more perfect? And so today, J is for Jesus!

The carving came into my life this way: We were living in Nebraska on our country property not far from the town of Seward. I’m driving down the gravel road past the old farm where Jack’s mother once taught school when I come up to the intersection at the highway and see this:

I thought it odd, of course; how often do you see a carving of Jesus sitting on a post along the highway for no reason whatsoever? I knew that it wasn’t a marker for someone killed in a car crash at this spot because I would have heard about it living so close by and besides that, I took this route to town almost every day and it was never there before. I tell myself I’ll stop and pick it up on my way back from town if it’s still there. Sure enough, hours later, it’s still there. I take it home and put out feelers to the community to see if anyone knows where it came from and why it ended up on the side of the road. No luck. I decide to keep it as a reminder of how weird and mysterious life can be.

While my knowledge of Biblical teachings is scanty and my faith a private matter, this passage often comes to mind when I contemplate the message Jesus brought to the world, “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Words to ponder this Easter season. Peace be with you all dear friends.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

I is for iceberg lettuce

The prime ingredient in the retro wedge salad as well as many other salads produced since the 1920s, iceberg lettuce has been around for a long time! Crisphead, as it is also known, was the only lettuce I remember from my childhood in the 1950s; I didn’t even know there were other kinds of lettuce until I was well into my teens. Back in the day, it was typically found on every sandwich made at home from egg salad to bologna to BLTs. It was often served as a salad too with Russian dressing, occasionally topped with tomatoes or cucumbers or sometimes just dressing if toppings were scarce. 

Iceberg lettuce was so popular in mid-century America that Tupperware even invented a plastic container in which to store it! Many of you will remember these green containers that took up so much space in the refrigerator; the inside had a removable plastic disc with a spike sticking up so you could push that into the core of the lettuce head and then add a bit of water to the bottom of the container to keep the lettuce from drying out. Attach the lid, burp it and voila, crisp lettuce for weeks. Ingenius! I had one of these at some point in the past but got rid of it when we started eating more romaine and other greens.

The story behind the demise of iceberg’s no-rival popularity fascinates me. It happened like this, more or less: back in the 1970s when Caesar Chavez organized a boycott to protest the working conditions of California lettuce pickers, iceberg suddenly disappeared from grocery store shelves and/or became so expensive that shoppers looked to other alternatives. Alice Waters had a little something to do with the unraveling of iceberg’s celebrity as well when she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. Waters simply dismissed iceberg lettuce as inferior produce while promoting the more delicate, flavorful greens she had discovered in France while training there as a chef. As a champion of the fresh and healthy food movement, Waters recognized the nutritional shortcomings of iceberg lettuce (substandard by all accounts) over other greens such as romaine, endive, mesclun, and arugula. These two accidents of history changed our tastes and broadened our culinary choices forever. Who knew?

Today iceberg still remains popular in America especially at steak houses, small town diners, and now, with the resurgence of the wedge salad, it can be found in many fancier restaurants too. I love iceberg lettuce on a good wedge salad; and, of course, one cannot have a real BLT sandwich without iceberg… it would just be wrong and un-American as well. My iceberg wedge salad recipe adapted from Bon Appetit magazine is listed below the photo.

Wedge Salad
Serves 4

4 slices of thick-cut peppered bacon
1/2 finely chopped small shallot
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar in a small bowl
1/2 cup crumbled Maytag or other mild blue cheese
Adjust consistency with buttermilk, if needed. Season dressing generously with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and more vinegar, if needed. Cut 1 small head of iceberg lettuce into 4 wedges; place on plates and spoon dressing over. Top with bacon, chopped chives and more freshly ground black pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Monday, February 1, 2016

H is for hummus

One of my favorite appetizers and all-round healthy snacks, hummus is dead simple to make at home in under 10 minutes. I usually make the classic recipe which follows below but once in a while, I'll add some roasted red bell pepper which is very good too.

Hummus originated in the Arabic world and literally meant "chickpeas" with the complete name of the prepared spread being "hummus bi tahina," which just means chickpeas and tahini (sesame seed paste). The earliest known recipes for this dish are recorded in cookbooks published in Cairo in the 13th century. Smart people even way back then! The basic ingredients are chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), lemon, garlic and salt; it's been eaten in the middle east for millennia.

My introduction to hummus began in a Greek restaurant in Silicon Valley many, many years ago. It was just the classic version served with a drizzle of olive oil and the freshest pita bread for scooping up its deliciousness. And even though hummus is widely available in most grocery stores, it's easy to make at home and tastes so much better than commercial varieties. I don't go to the extent of cooking my own garbanzo beans, however, as I've found the canned variety is just fine. Here is my recipe:


1 (19 oz.) can garbanzo beans, half the liquid reserved (add extra liquid for a smoother consistency)
2-3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. tahini
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tsp. salt
black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. olive oil

Super, super simple... just add all ingredients to a food processor and blend until smooth. Spoon into a serving dish, smooth it out and add whatever extras you want: a drizzle of olive oil, spices, chopped olives, chopped roasted bell pepper, cumin, parsley or nothing. Serve with pita bread, chips, or veges of choice.  (The swirled chili oil on top in my photo is Magic Ancho Chile Relish from Heidi Swanson's blog: 101cookbooks... the recipe can be found here. It's out of this world tasty; I use it on everything that needs a lift: sandwiches, tacos, veges, and as a bread dip.) Healthy. Yummy. Bon Appetit!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

G is for gardening

May Sarton said it best in this lovely quote: Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

I try to approach gardening with that same mindfulness and gratitude -- whispering thankful prayers for everything that is thriving. The difficulty lies in trying to maintain that righteous presence in the face of damaging insects, intense heat, dry winds, and hungry animals. All those good intentions and hopeful expectations are often dashed ever so quickly by any number of these setbacks. Still as a long-time gardener, I never give up. Every year brings that familiar stirring within to dig in the dirt, plant some seeds, and see what happens, odds be damned. Over the years, I’ve gardened in every home I’ve lived from my condo deck in Silicon Valley to a 5-acre country property in Nebraska.

The next 2 photos are of my gardens in Nebraska.

These next 2 are of my Tucson garden in 2005 (fully enclosed screened garden) and 2015 (entirely open raised bed) respectively.

Any discussion about gardening would not be complete without mentioning my Dad’s garden. My parents lived in Pennsylvania in the same house where I grew up. Our yard was big enough for a large garden but my Dad planted an even larger one on some land that a friend bequeathed to him. Not far from our house, it had no fence around it and no water source; it was just an empty lot of weeds and meadow grass. I don’t know how he watered it as I had moved to the west coast by then, but he managed to grow a variety of vegetables in spite of these handicaps. 

Rabbits loved his garden too but he didn’t mind. When they ravaged his lettuce, he would respond with, “Everything has to eat.” Here is a photo of my Dad in his garden. He has a certain je ne sais quoi, no? Grace for sure.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

F is for figs

I love figs, fresh with goat cheese or all by themselves. When we moved into our new/old house in May of this year, one of the first things I did was plant a black mission fig tree. It produced exactly 2 figs this season which I devoured right off the tree as soon as they were ripe. They were small but sweet and I imagined the bounty this tree could produce over the years and imagined baskets full that I would eat the same way hopefully having enough left over for making jam.

Figs are a gift from God I'm convinced. I've made fig jam from scratch using dried figs and eaten fig jam and preserves prepared by many purveyors. I never tire of it. One of the most special commercial prepared products I've come across is from Kozlowski Farms, Forestville, Ca, north of San Francisco. They call it, Fig & Muscat Wine Preserves. It is so excellent I can't imagine trying to duplicate it. I use it on pizza with goat cheese and spinach, on scones and on canapes. It's wonderful and I'm not even getting paid to promote it! Just saying. Check it out if you are intrigued. Bon appetit!