Travel Theme: Horizons

This week at Where’s My Backpack?, Ailsa asks us to look to the horizon for her travel theme. So, OK. Off into the distance!

George and I recently went to visit his daughter in Baltimore. The first night we were there we went out, you know. Dinner, cocktails, that sort of thing. The next day we walked around the city and then went to a baseball game, which was great fun but made for a long day. That night, we decided the right thing to do was have pizza and wine on the rooftop deck, and admire the skyline as the sun set. Here is Baltimore’s iconic Domino Sugars sign, seen over the rooftops of Locust Point.

Ahh, beautiful Domino Sugar sign...

Ahh, beautiful Domino Sugar sign. Even from the back you’re sassy.

This picture was taken closer to home for me. It was so close, in fact, I was home. We had some fantastic fog roll in from Buffalo Creek (Crick, if you’re local) one night, and this was how my back yard looked. I love that you have no idea where the tree line ends and the sky begins. Oh yeah. There’s a whole line of trees in that fog.

There's a crick and some trees back there. I swear.

There’s a crick and some trees back there. I swear.

This past December, we were in Myrtle Beach for our niece’s college graduation. When we were on our way out to dinner, a crazy-strong storm blew in–we were completely waterlogged crossing the street from the parking lot to the restaurant’s lobby–and we were a little early for the dinner rush, so I could run around the restaurant at will. The restaurant was right on the beach, and I ran around from room to room (big restaurant) looking out all the windows at the soaked world outside. This is what I got.

That is some angry ocean.

That sure is some angry ocean.

Sometimes…oh, this kills me…sometimes, cliches and stereotypes have some basis in fact. And New Jersey’s snark-riddled reputation as a land of refineries and factories and traffic…well, there’s this section along the Turnpike that George and I joke about, that we know we’re home when we see it. (Jersey peeps,’fess up, you do it too.) But. Sigh.

Cars and smokestacks, far as the eye can see.

Cars and smokestacks, far as the eye can see.

However! New Jersey also gives it up for moments like these.

Sunset, Normandy Beach, NJ.

Yes.

Yes.

What’s on your horizon?

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It Was Pink Outside Last Night

I’ve said before that central PA gets some of the best light I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of latitude…or air pollution or…what, I don’t know. I just know that the light around here is regularly ethereal. So I shouldn’t have been surprised last night when I opened the door to look for the cat. The sky was clearing after a little cloudburst of rain, and it was that anything-can-happen time just before sunset. But I admit, I was surprised. Because it was pink outside.

Pink.

Like, did I just open the door into an impressionist painting or what?

Here’s what it was like. The photos are unretouched in any way.

Le chat.

Le chat.

See? It’s all rosy and I swear, totally #nofilter.

Check out the clouds.

First through the trees. For suspense.

First through the trees. Because I’m building suspense.

And then…

Over the top of my neighbor's crazy Dr. Seuss tree.

Over the top of my neighbor’s crazy Dr. Seuss tree.

Over the rooftops.

Over the rooftops.

HOLY POCKETS.

HOLY POCKETS.

And then I turned around and…

Dig it.

Dig it.

Seriously. It felt surreal. Which isn’t a bad thing but, by definition, not what one tends to expect.

Scenes from the Rail Trail: May 23, 2014

It’s spring! It’s spring! It’s almost summer-ish! It was a glorious weekend, one perfect for getting on the bike and heading off on the rail trail. Except for the pollen. That’s a different story.

I bring you this blog today in celebration of the official end of a long, cold winter and the return of spring and all its free-floating vegetal woe (does it matter if it’s a cold or allergies? My head still weighs a million pounds and I’m leaky). Not too much narrative today; I self-refer to “my head weighs a million pounds” and thus, today, me no like wordsing, is too hard-hard. So I will mostly shut up now; here are more scenes from the beautiful Buffalo Valley Rail Trail.

Technically, near the rail trail. But close enough for my purposes. Check out the crazy clouds and the sun star!

Technically, near the rail trail. But close enough for my purposes. Check out the crazy clouds and the sun star!

Some kind of dried something that looks cool.

Some kind of dried something that looks cool.

Pollen generator! Too bad they're cute and full of whimsy.

Pollen generator! Too bad they’re cute and full of whimsy.

ART SHOT!

OBLIGATORY ART SHOT!

Trees are just doing they thang everywhere.

Trees are just doing they thang everywhere.

Ohhh...poppies...poppies...

Ohhh…poppies…poppies…

I'm not sure if I've ever encountered a pink honeysuckle before.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever encountered a pink honeysuckle before.

Some kind of pretty little wildflower, adding its subtle prettiness to the trail.

Some kind of delicate little wildflower, adding its subtle prettiness to the trail.

Thanks, Nature, for framing this shot for me.

Thanks, Nature, for framing this shot for me.

If anyone can tell me why the tops of silos are painted sort of carnivalesque, I'm happy to learn.

If anyone can tell me why the tops of silos are painted in a sort of carnivalesque style, I’m happy to learn.

Allrighty then. Good to know.

Allrighty then. Good to know.

The birds were REALLY not cooperating with me this day. This semi-obscured woodpecker is the best bird pic I was able to get.

The birds were REALLY not cooperating with me this day. This semi-obscured woodpecker is the best bird pic I was able to get.

And finally…

We begin with clouds, we end with clouds. I stopped taking pictures after this and got myself home before the rain.

We begin with clouds, we end with clouds. I stopped taking pictures after this and got myself home before the rain.

Nosh: Croatian Breskvice — Jammy Peach Cookies

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You know when you read about some recipe in a magazine and think, oh my word, what an interesting thing! And then for the life of you, you can’t remember what the name was of the thing you read, until–just a few days later, and by a few I mean maybe two–your professional baker friend posts a picture of her very own version of the thing you were just reading about? And out of the goodness of her heart sends you her very own recipe?

So. All that happened.

I forget where I first read about breskvice (BRESK-vee-tsye), the traditional Croatian cookie that looks like a boozy ersatz peach, but I was immediately smitten by the idea. Puffy, pretty, at first glance they totally resemble peaches (especially when they’re really glammed up with a clove “stem” and mint leaf…uh…”leaf”) but then when you bite into them…they still taste like peaches! Schnappsy peaches. With rum. Which is, basically, winning all around. The recipe I used was provided to me (with permission given to blog) by the equally insanely lovely and talented Diane of Cake Diane Custom Cake Studio near Dallas, and Texas people, what are you waiting for? Go make this woman a cake star.

Breskvice–not gonna lie–are kind of time consuming. Even more time-consuming: they may need to sit and dry for a day or two, so make them ahead of time. They’re occasion desserts, served at events like weddings and birthdays and holidays, where you want to let the recipients know they’re worth the effort. And you know? They really are worth the effort. Here’s the full recipe in .pdf format (which you’ll need the Adobe Acrobat reader to see, and if you don’t have this on your computer by now go here for the free download, and seriously? Welcome to the year 1996). First we’ll talk about how to make the cookies. You’ll need:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 350°, and line at least two (I used three) baking sheets with baker’s parchment or a silicone baking mat. Bust out your handy-dandy stand mixer (or a hand mixer, but once you add the flour prepare for an upper-body workout) and put eggs and sugar into the mixing bowl. Beat at a reasonably medium-working-it speed for about three minutes; your objective is to incorporate air into the eggs to build a fluffy, puffy cookie. Once the eggs and sugar look airy and have turned pale yellow, stream the vegetable oil in to incorporate, then mix that all together until it’s creamy.

Did my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I'm going to petition the internets for a Kitchen-Aid.

Dig my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I’m going to petition the internets for a shiny new Kitchen-Aid.

While the eggs are aerating and mixing and creaming with the oil, combine flour, salt and baking powder in another bowl. Yes, six cups of flour. Yes, it’s a lot of cookie. But you know…go big or go home. You don’t have to sift the flour but you should whisk your dry ingredients together so they’re well combined. Keep them off to the side for a minute.  Add milk, schnapps and vanilla to the eggs and give that a minute to combine. Then add your dry ingredient mix.

REMEMBER! If you keep your stand mixer running while you add the flour, drop the speed, and only add a little bit of flour at a time. Otherwise physics will go to work and the momentum will throw the flour back out of the bowl and all over you and your countertops. Incorporate the flour using your mixer for as long as feasibly possible, but at some point you’ll probably have to finish the mix by hand. My tell-tale signs that I need to make the mix-switch are when the mixer’s blades begin pushing the dough to the top of the bowl and adding more would create dough spillage, and also when I smell the motor of my mixer start to burn (seriously, I need a new stand mixer). When you’re finished, you will find yourself holding a bowl of the stickiest, thickest dough you’ve ever faced in your life.

Glob glob glob.

It’s like quicksand. Only yummier.

The recipe advises you to lightly coat your hands in oil before rolling these into balls and putting them on your parchment-lined baking sheets. That will work if you don’t mind having your hands covered in sticky oil. It didn’t work for me. I quickly realized I needed another plan; I took two spoons and rolled the dough between them like they’re quenelles. Here’s George hand-modeling it for you.

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

The tops of the cookies are uneven, but that’s OK. Just take a small spatula or knife, dip that in some oil, and smooth out the tops of the cookies.

It's like magic or something.

It’s like magic or something.

And then? Bake! They should take 15-20 (ish) minutes total, so check them after 8 minutes or so and rotate the pans. They should be nice and puffy on top, and lightly golden on the bottom.

Yep. That's it.

Yep. That’s it.

Set aside to cool.

While the cookies are cooling, you can start to assemble the filling. For that you’ll need:

  • 1-1/2 cups ground (not chopped) walnuts
  • 2 tsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp dark rum
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 12-oz jar peach or apricot jam*
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • reserved cookie crumbs

Grind walnuts in a food processor until they’re small crumbly walnut bits, but don’t grind them into a fine meal. You still want some nubbly texture from them. Set aside.

Combine cocoa, dark rum, peach schnapps, and jam. *Here is where I deviate wildly from the printed recipe. The first time I made this I followed the recipe to a T and thought the filling was a bit too soupy, plus I had a ton of it left over that I had no use for. The second time I made them, I used a 12-oz jar of jam (as noted above), and pulled ½ cup of the jam to use as “glue” between the cookies, after it was mixed with the liquors and cocoa. The resulting final filling held together more to my liking and was exactly as much as I needed. Play around with the recipe, see what you like best. It’s your kitchen!

Anyway. Back to it.

Dig out a peach-pit sized hole in the bottom of your cookie, being careful not to poke through the outside. Reserve the crumbs.

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Reserve ½ cup jam mixture, if you’re doing this my way, and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. If you’re following the printed recipe, take the entire jam mixture and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. You’ll end up with a setup that looks a little like this:

It's like the happiest assembly line, ever.

It’s like the happiest assembly line, ever.

Fill all the cookie middles, then coat one half of your cookie sandwich with jam-glue.

Yes, just like this.

Yes, just like this.

And then sandwich the halves together. Do this again and again until you have row after row of jam-filled sandwich sugar cookies. And when you think it can’t possibly get any better?

Hold on.

Take two utility bowls and add some peach schnapps to each of them (I’d start with ½ cup in each bowl, and work from there).  Add a few drops of red food coloring to one bowl, and a few drops of yellow to the other. In a third bowl (one large enough to roll the sandwich cookies in), add a pile of super-fine (a/k/a caster) sugar. Have a large roll of paper towels nearby. Take a cookie and dip it in the yellow dye, blot with paper towels to dry. Then dip the other sort of side/third/ish in the red dye, and blot again.

Time to play!

Time to play! Sooo, maybe your fingers get a little dye-ish. Wear gloves if that worries you.

You’re supposed to be imitating the look of a peach, so be creative and allow for color gradations and the nice round red butt of a ripe peach. Once they’re blotted dry, roll them in caster sugar to create “peach fuzz” and place them on your cooling rack to dry.

The trickiest part to this recipe is not letting them get too soggy in the coloring process, but the good news is, they’ll dry. And BONUS: they even taste better after sitting for a few days, so if you do get the soggies, put them on a cooling rack, loosely covered with wax paper, in your fridge. In a day or two all will be well, and you’ll have this:

HOLY MOTHER OF ALL PEACH GOODNESS!

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You can go all out and put in a clove “stem” and mint leaf “leaf”, but you’re not eating them so…why bother?  And yes, once they’re completely dry and ready to eat, you can also freeze any leftovers you might have. I know, I’ve tried it. Wrap each one in plastic and then store them in a plastic bag for extra protection, in the freezer. Just give them a couple of hours to thaw once you take them out.

When you cut the cookie in half, the walnut filling will look sort of like a peach pit. They’re unbearably cute and delicious. While they are outstanding all on their own, I have found that the best way to enjoy them is with friends, after dinner, over a robust and hearty conversation and a nicely chilled bottle of sparkling dry rosé.

This was a very good night.

This was a very good night.

Enjoy!  Happy eating!

Nosh: Fattoush Salad

MMmmmmmm….fattoush salad.

I adore fattoush salad; I’ve been known to fall upon it like it was my first meal after a week of starving in the desert, and small children have been warned to stay away from me while I’m eating it. It’s that good. And sadly, it’s not terribly well known in my corner of the world.

Fattoush is a beautiful salad that features a gorgeous blend of bright, citrusy flavors, fresh herbs, and savory crisp shards of pita. It’s an amazing Middle Eastern bread salad, and it’s easy, especially as ingredients are more and more readily available, even here in my centrally isolated little burg.  I’m sure there’s some of you out there thinking, a salad is a salad, right? Raw veggies, a dressing, how exciting can it be?  I hear that, I do, and I understand that raw veggies can seem (seem!) a little…meh, OK, what else you got? But the abundant fresh vegetables serve as a healthy backdrop for a freakishly delicious dressing that, combined with fresh herbs and toasted pita, steals the show.  Here’s how to go about a fattoush dressing:

  • 4 teaspoons ground sumac, soaked in 4 teaspoons warm water for 15 minutes
  • 3 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) pomegranate molasses (local peeps, you CAN get this at the grocery store)
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried mint
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt

Sumac, for those of us unfamiliar with it, is a tart spice that we could, theoretically, harvest from the tons and tons and tons of central PA sumac trees, most of which (I think) are growing in my back yard.

Yep. That stuff.

Yep. That stuff.
Photo from whittleddown.com

Soak the four teaspoons of sumac in an equal amount of warm-to-tap-water-hot water to help the flavors bloom and turn it into a tart, bright flavor base.  Don’t use boiling water; it will turn the sumac bitter. (If you added a cup full of water and then strained it, you’d have a tea, which is apparently a common drink in other parts of the world, and I’ll have to check out for a later blog.) While it’s soaking, assemble things like your lemon and mint.

This is a good start to anything, really.

This is a good start to anything, really.

And yes, of course zest the lemon first. Why wouldn’t you? Lemon zest is just deliciousness; throwing it away seems foolhardy at best.  If you have fresh mint (like I did, see above) use it, just remember to use double the amount of dried mint they ask for in the recipe since fresh herbs are less concentrated than dried ones. And if you don’t have white wine vinegar or prefer champagne vinegar or white balsamic vinegar (my personal favorite), feel free to use that instead.

Once the sumac has soaked for 15 minutes and everything else is chopped/zested/juiced, put it all in a small mixing bowl and whisk in some good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil.  Then tinker. Maybe you want some more pomegranate molasses?  Maybe you want a splash more vinegar? Play with it until the flavors please you, then season with some salt.  The dressing can, of course, be made ahead of time and allowed to sit in your fridge or on a countertop until you’re ready to eat. I always think homemade dressings taste better after giving the flavors some time to mingle, so if you can get this done earlier in the day, bravo! Go for it. As you get closer to dinner time, prep the rest of your salad.  Heat your oven to 350°. Take two (or three, if you want one to snack on later, like I do) pita breads, put them on a cookie tray and brush their tops with some olive oil. Then season them with a dusting of za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend of sesame seeds and (more) sumac and other delicious things as well. Toss the pita in your hot oven and check them after 6 minutes.  They usually take more like 8 minutes to get crispy and golden-brown, but depending on your oven… *shrug*  And there’s no rescue for burnt pita, so check early, check often.

And you’ll get this.

*om nom nom*

*om nom nom*

You want them toasted and brown and dry enough to easily crumble, since they’re going to serve like big flat za’atar-y croutons. Oh, heavens, yes you do want that.

As far as assembling the salad goes, the “official” recipe calls for this.

  • 3 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped, or 4 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 pound Persian cucumbers, or one 1-pound English hothouse cucumber, quartered lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 6 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 2 Little Gem or baby romaine lettuces, or 1 small head romaine lettuce, trimmed, cut crosswise into 3/4″ strips
  • 2 cups (loosely packed) flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 cups purslane leaves or additional 3/4″-strips romaine lettuce
  • 1 cup fresh mint leaves
  • Ground sumac (optional)

But I’m here to tell you, you can use whatever kind of vegetables you want, in whatever proportion. I recommend going heavy on the cucumber and less heavy on the scallions, and adding in some thinly sliced red onions. Personally, I’m not crazy about carrots or celery in fattoush but will say yes to radishes every time. Don’t skimp on the fresh herbs, but feel free to use whatever ones you have handy: basil, mint, chives?  Go for it.  Parsley or cilantro? Yum! I’d stay away from using fresh rosemary or oregano because I think they’d compete too heavily with the dressing, but otherwise? Play with your food! See what you like.  And I also tend to not garnish with more sumac at the end, simply because I want the dressing to shine and not become overwhelming, with the brassy addition of more sumac.  Sometimes, less is more.

When the pita has cooled and your vegetables and herbs are all chopped and in your salad bowl, crumble the pita and mix it in with the salad. Top with some dressing (yes, I always dress salads at the last minute) and…voila!

Breakfast, lunch and dinner. That's when I could eat this.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s when I could eat this.

The tart from the dressing combined with the freshness of the herbs and the savory crisp pita makes the flavors burst out of this salad. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t love it after the first try, so if you’re looking for ways to perk up your drive to eat more healthily, give the fattoush salad a whirl.

Enjoy!

A Word A Week Challenge: Atmospheric

Skinnywench over at A Word in Your Ear has issued this week’s “Word a Week Challenge“, wherein she picks a word from the dictionary at random and opens her page to fellow bloggers. I often lurk and don’t often participate, but this week the challenge is “Atmospheric” and as I am feeling moody…it’s a natural fit. Getting started.

I snapped this during a beautiful night along Penns Creek. It was the 4th of July, and we’d gone to New Berlin to watch the fireworks.

Along the river in New Berlin, July 4 2013.

Along the river in New Berlin, July 4 2013.

Central PA has its charms, for sure.

Fog rolled off of Buffalo Creek and right into my yard this summer. It was fantastic.

Kind of home-town creepy.

Kind of home-town creepy.

And then there’s sunrise at Belhurst Castle. I apparently rely heavily (but not only) on trees to help set the mood.

Gloom, schmoom. Atmospheric shots can be uplifting, too.

Gloom, schmoom. Atmospheric shots can be uplifting, too.

As nice as uplifting is, the gnarly shots are often more thought-provoking. The following (treeless) picture was taken behind an abandoned mill in Cowan, PA, and I’ve come to think it is atmospheric in the same way Mad Max is atmospheric.

Get your leathers and feathers ready. We're going Road Warrior!

Get your leathers and feathers ready, folks. We’re going Road Warrior!

And finally, crazy psycho clouds over Lake Champlain, as seen from an uncomfortably exposed balcony in Burlington VT. Wherein the atmosphere literally sets the atmosphere.

And that atmosphere is: Don'tPanicDon'tPanicDon'tPanic...

And that atmosphere is: Don’tPanicDon’tPanicDon’tPanic…

Check out the rest of the participants in Skinnywench’s challenge over at A Word in Your Ear. Thanks for stopping by!

Nosh: Falafel

One of the truths about living in a small town in the US: if you want groovy global cuisine, you’d better learn how to make it yourself.  It’s gotten considerably more food-diverse here in the past few years so I have less and less reason to kvetch, but nonetheless there are foods I like to eat that are difficult to come by. Falafel is one of them. Raw materials = abundant. Final product = scarce. Since we are learning creatures, we adapt. We even compromise. There are not a lot of foods I’m willing to fry in my house, but falafel is one of them. Because oooh, crispy balls of fried chickpeas, how I love you so. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 16-oz bag dried chickpeas, picked through and rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 handfuls fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro, leaves coarsely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • Candy and fat thermometer (really, you need this)

This is a recipe that requires a bit of prep work, since you need enough oil for frying, a high heat, fat-friendly thermometer, and time to soak the chickpeas overnight. Don’t use canned. Plan ahead. I also highly recommend getting a kitchen spider, if you don’t have one yet, for working with food in hot oil. Anyway.

Empty the bag of dried chickpeas into a strainer and give them the ol’ once-over to check for stray rocks that have been collected with said legumes. Rinse them, then put them in a pot and cover them by 2 inches with water. Lid, overnight, leave it alone on the stovetop, done until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the next morning...

Meanwhile, the next morning…

Next day!  Drain your swollen chickpeas. They’ll be nice and plump and definitely softer than they were, but not smooshy. Which is good; when you process them, you want them to maintain their integrity, not turn into a paste. Take cumin and coriander seeds and put them in a dry pan. Turn your heat on to medium-low and let them start to toast. In about five minutes (give or take) they’re get slightly brown and super-fragrant. Don’t wander too far away because once they reach the oh-hell-yeah fragrant part, they’re close to burning. Take them off the heat and put them in a spice grinder.  IF you don’t want to do this step–you don’t have a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, you just don’t feel like, whatever–that’s fine. You can skip this part. The spices just won’t taste as “deep”. It will still be yummy.  Trust me on this one. :)

Put everything–chickpeas, and everything on the ingredient list from baking powder to fresh cilantro–into a food processor. Whirl it all together until you have a mix that is nicely ground together but not paste-y.  You may have to whirl it in batches (like I do); if that’s the case, once everything is ground to the right size then put it all in one big bowl and mix well until all ingredients are evenly combined.

Et voila!

Et voila!

See how the falafel mix is kind of nubbly and not smooth? That’s what you want. Taste it, then season with salt and pepper and give it another stir.  Roll them into ping-pong sized balls, then put them in the fridge and let them set while the oil heats up.

Of course, the oil is the fun part.

Pour 3 inches of a mild-tasting oil (vegetable, canola) into a nice, deep, heavy pot. I used this fantastic cast-iron Dutch oven my boyfriend has had for years; make sure your pot is sturdy and deep, and can provide a place to clip on a candy and fat thermometer, because you’ll need one.  Clip the thermometer to the side of your pot, making sure the end does not touch the bottom of the pot, since that will give you an inaccurate temperature reading. Turn on the heat and let the oil come up to 375°, which is the temperature you’re going to try and maintain during the cooking process (there will be more on the importance of temperature in a minute). While the oil is heating, set up your workstation. You’re working with hot oil, so you don’t want to mess around.  Get a spider so you can lower the falafel balls into hot oil and retrieve them, with as few burns as possible. Have a plate lined with paper towels as a landing pad. Have more paper towels at the ready so you can stack layers of draining falafel.

Kinda like this. And put away things that can get in your way, like errant cans of spray-on oil. (Whoops!)

Kinda like this. And put away things that can get in your way, like errant cans of spray-on oil. (Whoops!)

Once the oil hits 375°, get to it. You want to maintain that temperature as consistently as possible because it will cook the falafel balls thoroughly and create a lovely crisp exterior with a nice light center, without soaking in and making heavy, greasy balls of oily chickpea meal.  If the oil gets too hot it will scorch the outside while the inside remains untouched.  If it drops too cold it will…well, see “heavy greasy balls of chickpea meal”. Both are bad outcomes.  Ideally, this is what you’ll want in a finished falafel.

Not overdone, not cooked through, not greasy, still fresh and soft inside. Yummmm!

Not overdone, just cooked through, not greasy, still fresh and green and soft inside. Yummmm!

Load up your spider with four or five falafel balls and lower them into the…

Seriously, use the right equipment.

Seriously, use the right equipment.

Please be careful.

After frying each batch for 4-5 minutes, you can go from raw green falafel to beautiful fried goodness.

Dinner, in process!

Dinner, in process!

Falafel is often served as an appetizer, or in a wrap or pita with lettuce/tomato/cuke/red onion and a tahini dressing, which I love and you are more than welcome to do. BUT. What I don’t love is buying an entire can of tahini paste to make the dressing, using a small portion of it for one recipe, and let the rest go bad in my fridge. Or, I’ll feel a bizarre pressure to use it all (and experience a sense of failure when I have to throw out the gone-bad portion anyway). Who needs their dinner to shame them?  So.  We had a mid-east feast and served the falafel with a super-simple tzatziki sauce (recipe coming soon), over fattoush salad (recipe coming soon).

Dig it.

Dig it.

This recipe will make a ton of falafel and those of you cooking for one or two…or might have a large family with eaters who wouldn’t dream of eating this so you’d only be making it for yourself…cheer up! Cooked falafel freezes beautifully, so you can stash them in your freezer for months with the help of a little wax paper and an airtight container.

Enjoy!

Travel Theme: Wood

“Wood” is the travel theme Ailsa has bestowed upon us this week at Where’s My Backpack?, and that’s just fine.  Of course, I don’t really know how much “travel” there is in my theme since I chose photos I took locally, but hey…you could travel to the bucolic splendor of central PA to feast your eyes, no?  :)  I’ve been in the car too much, right now I’m interested in staying put.  With that being said, here is my “wood” theme.  Mostly trees.

Like these ones.  Last spring George and I took a walk around Milton State Park.  The air was crisp and fresh and bright green buds were starting to come out on the trees.  (Which, for the record, is my favorite shade of green, but that’s another blog entirely.)  I stepped inside a cluster of beautiful old trees, looked straight up and saw…

Here's looking up yer old...growth...wooded areas...

Here’s looking up yer old…growth…wooded areas…

During a day driving around with my camera in my lap, I noticed this old, charmingly unkempt wooden fence, with one slat of wood warping away from the rest.

No matter what you do, wood has a mind of its own.

No matter what you do, some wood has a mind of its own.

My town has a groovy little rail trail that cuts through a bunch of rustic, scenic farmsteads.  (It helps that I’m surrounded by land that is generally rustic and scenic.)  This gorgeous wooden barn that looks like it’s straight out of a movie set is along said rail trail.  I can’t wait until it’s warm enough to ride again so I can feast my eyes upon it in real life.  Until then, the photo will do.

P.S. Those black walnut thingies really hurt when they fall and whack you in the arm.

Warning: Those black walnut thingies hurt when they fall and whack you in the arm.

And to you cold-weather riders who insist I won’t have to wait until it’s warm to ride the trail again:  No.  But thank you.  But no.

Every year, our local historical society organizes Rural Heritage Days (at least, I think it’s thanks to the UCHS; I’m happy to learn otherwise).  It’s interactive and completely family-oriented and you can learn how to twine rope and make things like lead shot.  You can also watch a man with a steam-powered lathe carve wooden table and chair legs.  I don’t know why, put I’m particularly enamored of the wood chips along his arm.

I know!  Weirdly cool, right?

I know! Weirdly cool, right?

Finally…Not that I’m dreaming of spring or anything as the cold weather has settled on central PA, but in downtown Lewisburg, one resident has a glorious magnolia tree.  It’s huge.  It sprawls across the entire yard.  And it’s one more reason that springtime in this town is extraordinary.  Flowering trees are among my favorite things but this?  Goes beyond the pale of any flowering tree I’ve ever seen.

This?  Is ALL.  One.  Tree system.

This? Is ALL. One. Tree system.

There’s my travel photos.  See you ’round town in the springtime!  :)  Enjoy the other bloggers at Ailsa’s place.

Nosh: Sweet and Spicy Brussels Sprouts

I know they’re a trendy vegetable, but the fact is: with or without the trend, I love Brussels sprouts.  That wasn’t always true but then, that wasn’t always true for me and most vegetables.  We live, we learn.

So.  What do you do when you’re handed something that looks like this?

Fun with CSA produce!

Fun with CSA produce!

  1. Shake it like it’s a set of maracas.
  2. Check it for alien spawn.
  3. Eat it.

Happily, “eat it” is correct.  Brussels sprouts still on the stalk may look a little daunting but appearances can be deceiving.  Or…well, not deceiving, really, because I think it’s pretty obvious what you’d need to do, which is cut them off the stalk.  It’s just unfamiliar to the average US supermarket shopper. Normally, I opt to roast Brussels sprouts (with just a little soy sauce and some olive oil…yum!) BUT in the interests of branching out–one can’t live on roasted sprouts alone–I figured I’d try something that involved shredding and sauteing said sprouts.  So I made a little sweet and spicy sprout concoction, and it was one of my better ideas.  Here’s what I used:

  • 1 stalk Brussels sprouts (or a bag of, what 20 or so, for two people?)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, dry toasted*
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • Salt and black pepper to taste (and I recommend going a little heavy on black pepper, but more on that later)

*You probably won’t need the full half cup of walnuts to make this dish work, but I always prep extra because–not gonna lie–I snack on them like crazy while cooking.  Adjust accordingly.

First, cut the sprouts off the stalk and rinse them, then trim them by removing any weird, gnarly outer leaves.  You’ll go from the mutant alien arm pictured above to…

Want. To eat.

Want. To eat.

…beautiful compact mini-cabbages just waiting for you to have your way with them.  They’re much more recognizable this way, not so far a cry from the sprouts my mother used to get in those cellophane-wrapped cardboard tubs (remember those?).  Anyway.

I usually take care of toasted walnuts first, for two reasons.  Once you get them started, you can leave them alone for a couple of minutes with minimal attention while you tend to other cooking tasks (but don’t wander too far, they will burn easily) AND once they’re ready, the snacking can begin.  So.  Take your walnuts, put them in a dry pan (as in, no oil), and set them on your stove over medium heat.  Let them go–giving them the occasional shake to aid in even cooking–for five minutes or so, until they brown in spots and start to smell toasty and warm.  If you think they’re ready, then pull them from the heat, because it’s better that they’re less browned than if they’re burnt.  There’s no recipe rescue for a burnt walnut.  Once they’re done, set them aside but don’t let them sit in the pan since the residual heat from the pan can push them over the edge.  Put them in a bowl.

Commence nibbling.

Commence nibbling.

Slice the Brussels sprouts into thin ribbony bits, and don’t try and use anything fancy like a mandoline for this.  You don’t need perfectly even shreds, and you’re just asking to slice into fingertips since the sprouts are so small.  Just have at it with your knife, and while you’re at it?  Mince the garlic.  You’ll have a glorious, fluffy mound of sprouty-garlic goodness that will cook very quickly, once you get it in hot oil.

I don't know why; I just thought the border on this pic was funny.

I don’t know why; I just thought the border on this pic was funny.  Probably because I’m trying to distract you from the reality that this is not one of my best pictures, but it’s what I’ve got that fits this section of text. And I digress.

To cook: Give the shredded sprouts and garlic a stir to make sure they’re all evenly mixed. Put some olive oil in a pan that’s ready to go at a medium heat, then add in the shredded sprouts and garlic.  Add in thyme and crushed red pepper flakes, give it all a stir in the pan, and then spread it out so it’s one even layer across the pan.  Leave it alone for a three or four minutes.  You want the sprouts on the bottom to start to brown, but don’t go too far because once they brown this dish is almost done.  Give the sprout mix a stir and a shake to knock loose anything that might be adhering to the bottom of the pan and let it saute for a minute or two longer.  Stir in the honey and give that a minute to incorporate evenly through the dish, then add salt and pepper to taste and remove it from heat.  I like a lot of pepper, both for its lovely bite and for the subtle woodsy-floral component it brings.  Mix in the amount of walnuts you feel is appropriate, and kind of crumble them before tossing them in so you have big, rustic walnut chunks.  And that’s it.

You’re done.  Really.

Quick, easy and delicious. Does it get any better than this?

Quick, easy and delicious. Does it get any better than this?

The walnuts keep this dish grounded, the sprouts and garlic bring the savory, the red pepper flakes add fire and the honey balances everything with sweetness.  This could, possibly, be a perfect dish.  I’m not sure.  I’ll have to eat a lot more of it to find out.

We served this with two-way fennel and capers with pasta and a crisp green salad, and celebrated the very good fortune we have in available vegetables.  Make this.  Enjoy it.  And when Brussels sprouts stop being trendy, you can still make it and enjoy it and rattle your cane at those crazy kohlrabi-eating kids who don’t know a modern classic when they see it.

Travel Theme: Winter

This week at Where’s My Backpack?, Ailsa’s travel theme is the seasonally appropriate “winter”.  Cool.  Pun intended.  It’s my favorite season.  Actually, they all are except for summer, of which regular readers have come to realize I am no fan.  Mostly, and especially this week, winter (for me) is nearly synonymous with Christmas, so there’s a reasonable amount of Christmas in this mix.  It’s not always about ladies in red velvety dresses with crisp white fur trim…

…except when it is.  I was recently visiting family in Myrtle Beach, who thought it would be great to go see the Carolina Opry‘s Christmas Spectacular, matinee, for my birthday (which just passed, two days after I totaled my car).  I might have been the youngest person there.  It was a delicious cheesefest.  I knew we were in for a real treat when, not ten minutes into it, Rita Gumm–the First Lady of the Carolina Opry–glided onto the stage, in a horse-drawn sleigh.

BEHOLD! Rita Gumm, the First Lady of the Carolina Opry!

BEHOLD! Winter in South Carolina.

That is some dress, my friends, red and vibrant as a Carolina sunset.  It was a Christmas miracle.

Winter for me means decorations and sparkly things, and the decorations can be elegant and beautiful or whimsical and sweet.  I love this penguin.  It was given to me by a friend and former co-worker who I adore, and we all know penguins = snow and ice and snow and ice = winter.

Yay, decorations and sparkly things to brighten up dreary winter nights!

Yay, decorations and sparkly things to brighten up dreary winter nights!

While driving down to South Carolina, we stopped in a grim little restaurant with uninspired food and faded, 1930s-era cabbage rose wallpaper in the main dining room.  I’d say what restaurant it was but I’m hoping to extort them for hush money (*cough cough* Shamrock).  Anyway.  So the food was uninteresting (I think I’m still getting over my sodium headache) and bizarrely expensive, and left me feeling as though I’d been tricked somehow.  But you know?  The surroundings, at the foot of the Catoctin Mountain Ridge?  When they were heavy with fresh snow?  Were fantastic.

Out back behind The Restaurant That Shall Remain Nameless (Shamrock).

Out back behind The Restaurant That Shall Remain Nameless (Shamrock).

Closer to home, my little ‘burg has an annual tree lighting and high-school-chorus-singing ceremony, that takes place in the town square with the frilly street lamps and the absolutely frigging enormous tree that has to be strung with fancy lights thanks to the use of a cherry picker.  Or maybe the town keeps a de-toothed bumble in the maintenance shed.  Off camera there’s a gazebo.  It’s insanely picturesque, and I live here.

Did I mention the art deco movie theater and the overall cool architecture?

Did I mention the art deco movie theater and the overall cool architecture?

And finally…

No winter in recent memory has been complete without a trip to see my former Russian professor.  She lives just outside of Boston and YES, I go north in the winter.  Judge me for it, I don’t care.  It’s the most snug and welcoming house in the world, filled with great conversation and lovely people and delicious food.  While we were there this past February it snowed big fat flakes, giving me an eye-feast from Elena’s cheerful kitchen window.

IMG_0071-001

This is one of my favorite places no matter what season, but for me? It’s extra-special in the winter.

This is a relationship in which I consider myself incredibly lucky.

Have fun checking out the rest of the participants at Ailsa’s place this week!

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