Sunday, January 30, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Things are Looking Up

Walking around the neighborhood the other day, I was heartened to find activity going on in the real estate department. My neighborhood is filled with smaller older houses, or new mega mansions that have been built where the small houses used to be. The building of the mega mansions came to a screeching halt several years ago, but some of the smaller houses that were being re-done also got stalled mid-stream. Now, it seems that some new houses are finishing up construction and some of the smaller houses are getting finishing up remoldeling. I have to think that this is a positive sign in Miami, where real estate prices have fallen to half of the all-time high. Real estate is an important part of our economy, as it affects construction jobs, tax revenue and overall confidence in the economy. I don't think I'm ready to sing "Happy Days Are Here Again!", but maybe a few lines of "Things are looking up!"

Things are looking up
I've been looking the landscape over
and it's covered with four leaf clover
Oh things are looking up
Since love looked up at me.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Food for Thought

I heard a shocking statistic at the Key West Literary Seminar on Food Writing from Ruth Reichl. Most people use only two recipes from the cookbooks they buy! Mon dieu! Julia Child would roll over in her grave. So, much as I'm tempted, I'm going to resist the urge to buy a new cookbook (although I did just buy one at the Seminar- At Home with Madhur Jaffrey) and rediscover (or discover for the first time) recipes in the many cookbooks I already own. My friend Martha introduced me to the cookbooks of Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa. I had been somewhat put off by her show on the Food Network "This is the way we do it in The Hamptons", and that sort of elite snobbiness, but I have to admit, her recipes are good. Another one of her favorite expressions is "How easy is that?", which is also the title of her latest cookbook, which Martha gave me for my birthday. Martha invited me over for a birthday dinner, where she cooked the whole meal from recipes from the cookbook and I made sausage-stuffed mushrooms, also from the cookbook. So far, I have made five recipes from the book (I'm above the average already!) and tonight I'm making her Beef Barley Soup for the family. At another dinner at Martha and Luis's last Saturday night, she made Salmon Tartare and Creamy Parmesan Polenta, both delicious and from the same cookbook. While I'm not a big fan of salmon, this version, kind of a mix between ceviche and smoked salmon, is a keeper. So the next time I need a recipe, I'm going to go visit my old friends Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, James Beard, Fannie Farmer and even the Barefoot Contessa, sitting on the shelf in my den. How easy is that?

Fresh Salmon Tartare

Serves 6

1 lb. skinless fresh salmon fillet (Martha got hers at Cotsco)
1/2 lb. smoked salmon, thickly sliced
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (3 limes)
1/3 c. minced shallots (2 shallots)
2 T. good olive oil
1/4 c. minced fresh dill
3 T. drained capers
2 T. Dijon mustard
1 T. whole grain mustard
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
1 loaf seven grain bread, thinly sliced and toasted for serving (Martha used Italian country bread)

Cut the fresh salmon and the smoked salmon in a 1/4 inch dice. Place the salmon in a mixing bowl and add the lime juice, shallots, olive oil, dill, capers, two mustards, salt and pepper. Mix well, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours for the salmon to marinate. When ready to serve, toast the bread and taste the salmon for seasonings. Serve the tartare with triangles of toast.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Join a Local Attraction

Yesterday we went to the Chocolate Festival at Fairchild Tropical Gardens. Zeke got a family membership because he did pro bono work for the Garden, so our membership was essentially free (if you don't count the hours of work he did on their behalf). Joining a local museum or attraction for a yearly membership is a great idea IF you use it often. Fairchild Tropical Garden is five minutes away from our house, so it is ideal for us to hop over there on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Normal admission for the Chocolate Festival was $20 for adults, $10 for kids so it would have cost us $60 to get in if we didn't have the membership (which normally costs $125). If you attend two events, the membership has pretty much paid for itself. Originally started by David Fairchild, the Garden is also a great place to take visitors from out of town. Since we've had the membership, we've gone to a Green Festival, The Ramble, The Mango Festival and The Chocolate Festival. I usually try to only join one organization a year, otherwise I don't really get enough use out of it. Next event, however, I will try to attend early in the day. Hitting the free chocolate demo section at midday, the last day of the festival, was a recipe for disaster. And not a sweet one, at that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ What Flavor Are You?

I went to the Coral Gables Farmer's Market this morning to browse around. There was a man there selling tomato plants and mango trees. While I was really tempted to buy a mango tree, before I shelled out my 25 bucks, I wanted to make sure my purchase is a variety of mango I like. Unfortunately, some of them can be stringy and taste like turpentine. When my Dad decided to plant a tree in his yard in Gables-By-The-Sea, he taste-tested about 16 different varieties. After months of this flavorful experiment, he finally decided on a variety he loved; it's still producing fruit. The other consideration I had is how big the tree is going to get. Hayden, according to the tree guy, grows very big, but I could probably plant a Glenn or Tommy Atkins. I want to find out what kind I like soon because I love mangoes! It will be added to my 2 lychee, 1 starfruit, 1 banana and 2 avocados trees and I will be living in a tropical fruit paradise.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Recycle Responsibly

Do you have a similar looking container around your house, filled with old electronics in a jumbled mess? Once the nice new shiny toys arrive in December, many of our old toys lose their lustre. Tempting as it is, you should not just toss them out with the trash. Number one, it increases the amount of junk in our landfills. Number two, if the item contains batteries, it is a hazardous material, bad for the environment and polluting the soil and water it is leached into. The best thing to do is try and find someone who can use the discarded cell phone, charger, computer etc... assuming the item is still in working order. E-bay is a good place to sell these items, since it reaches more people than other websites. While the charger to your old cell phone is trash to you, it could be just what another person needs and make you some treasure, in the process.
If your electronics are no longer working, you could possibly take them to a local collection center; we have eight locations here in Miami. If your town doesn't offer that option, there are other places that will take them, most of them for free. Best Buy and Dell will take used electronics, free of charge. Sony, won't take computers, but will take other electronics (from camcorders to cell phones) for free. Staples and Hewlett Packard both charge (from $10 up) to take old computers, but Hewlett Packard will take inkjet cartridges, rechargeable batteries and cell phones for free. January is the perfect time is to clean up and get organized. Just make sure you're responsible about disposing of your electronics when you do so. Mother Earth and its citizens will thank you. Unless, of course, the world is coming to an end in 1012, in which case, like Rosanneadanadana says "Nevermind."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Three Wishes

When my husband and I were first dating and I had him over for dinner, the wine I served usually came from the $5 bin at the local grocery store. This was fine with him, since he was a beer drinker. I slowly converted him to wine drinking (don't know if it was the fine $5 wine or my influence) so now wine is our beverage of choice to drink with weekend dinners (although he still drinks beer for watching football). I usually spend under $10 for an everyday wine, if I can find one for $5, all the better. Wine Spectator has a list of good wines under $10, but they are hard to find in the grocery store. When we were in Whole Foods the other day, I found a display of wine in three varieties- Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot- for only $2.99! While most people have heard of Two Buck Chuck (Trader Sam's cheap wine), I had never heard of Three Wishes and loved the dandelion on the label. We tried the chardonnay and although it didn't taste much like chardonnay to me- it was sweeter and milder, not oaky or strong- it was certainly passable. It would be perfect to use in a white wine spritzer or to make white wine sangria. While I really enjoy savoring an excellent wine, for everyday drinking Three Wishes is worth a try. Although, wouldn't a genie on the bottle be a more appropriate logo?
White Sangria Cafe Tu Tu Tango
2 bottles white wine
5 oz (10 Tablespoons) 7-up
5 oz (10 Tablespoons) apple juice
5 oz (10 tablespoons) white grape juice
2 oz (3 Tablespoons) gin
2 oz (3 Tablespoons) Triple Sec
Cubed fresh fruit: oranges, limes and apples.
Mix all liquic ingredients well in a glass carafe. Pour over ice; top with fruit. Makes 11 drinks. For stronger version, slice fruit and soak in gin (or vodka) overnight.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Eat Like a Cow

I have a confession to make. I wasn't exactly "alone, alone, alone" in Key West. I talked hubby Zeke, into joining me Saturday night. We had planned an expensive, romantic dinner at Louie's Backyard (where Norman Van Aken got started in the 80's) but he was delayed due to a Miami to Key West running relay, so we had a late lunch. We started at Blue Heaven, a quintessential Key West place with roosters running around colorfully painted signs, jerk chicken and a waiter with a deep N'awlin's accent whose mother went to University of Alabama (roll tide). Had some Key West pinks there (with a glass of white wine) and then mosied on down to the Historic Seaport to sample conch fritters (with a pitcher of beer) at the Half Shell Raw Bar. Needless to say, by that point, the big fancy dinner was out the window. We wanted to try their conch fritters because it is where my recipe, (which has since been stolen by my brother-in-law who now claims it is his) came from. The conch fritters were good, but not as good as John's version (which have more conch). After that, we went back to our hotel to take a dip in the pool and dry out a bit. We headed back out to Mallory Square to watch the sunset show of carnie folk, but unfortunately missed the sunset. The carnie folk, however, were in full force. After walking around a while we worked up a thirst (and Zeke wanted to watch a NFL playoff game) so we ended up at The Flying Monkey on Duval. I ordered a frozen Margarita, in honor of Jimmy Buffet and because I was sick of wine and beer. The guy next to me had the most amazing hamburger- big, juicy and topped with chopped tomatoes, chopped scallions, blue cheese and bacon bits. After walking down Duval street some more, we returned to split a "Cheeseburger in Paradise". It did not disappoint. The next morning we had breakfast at Sarabeths, a writer's hangout with coffee the size of a soup bowl and amazing almond crusted french toast, with apple butter and bananas. For the amount we would have spent on one dinner, we got lunch, dinner, snacks, drinks and breakfast. So, while there is a time and place for the expensive, romantic dinner, enjoying the local color and sampling the regional favorites is actually my favorite way of eating. You can call it grazing, tapas, small plates, whatever... It's good eats. Here's the recipe for the Conch Fritters. They're good eats too. (Just not as good as John's.)
Half Shell Raw Bar Conch Fritters
1 pound conch, sinew removed, pounded with fine end of a tenderizing mallet
1/2 sweet red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 sweet Bermuda or white onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, very finely chopped
1/2 box (16 oz) Aunt Jemimia Complete Pancake Mix
Dash of Key lime juice
16 oz peanut oil for deep frying
After conch has been pounded tender, coursely grind the meat in a food processor. Reserve juices. Place red pepper and onion in a sieve and blanch in boiling water, cooking no more than 1 minute. Add conch and its juice, pepper, onion and jalapeno and lime juice to pancake mix, adding more lime juice if necessary but keeping batter only moist enough to adhere to ingredients. Allow mixture to set for 30 minutes. Shape into the size of golf balls, no more than 1 inch in diameter. Heat oil in deep fryer to 350 degrees or higher, removing before they turn brown. Pat dry and cool. Just before serving, cook a second time in same oil until they are an amber color. Serve with cocktail and mustard sauce. (I like to dip in both.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Table for One

I went to the Key West Literary Seminar alone- "alone, alone, alone"- which, doesn't seem like a big deal but after six years of being married, it was a bit of a jolt to the system. It reminded me of my time as a Flight Attendant for Air Florida, when, on certain trips and in certain towns I would find myself eating or sightseeing alone. As I ducked into a Chinese restaurant on a wet, cold night on the way back to my hotel, I fell into the old pattern quite easily. Hot tea, won ton soup, a corner booth and me engrossed in my book (actually the booklet from the seminar) with a Key West sushi roll for one. Traveling alone is at times scary (the drunk guy who wanted to be friends on Duval Street) and at times exhilarating; it is rarely dull. Doing things outside of our comfort zone keeps life interesting and has been shown to help with Alzheimer's. It's so easy to get in a rut- same mystery novels, same TV shows, same restaurants, even the same meals at same restaurants. I ate last night at a Haitian restaurant for the first time in my life. Although I didn't know what to order, I got lots of advice from the patrons (all Haitian) and had the most lovely, flavorful grilled chicken, (couldn't do the goat) maybe of my life. And when you open yourself up to possibilities, you never know what might happen. As for the exhilarating part of my story, I met US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who signed my book. Then, as fate would have it, I ended up sitting at his table for a conch chowder lunch. This couldn't have happened at home. Here's one of his poems from Ballistics which he read at the seminar.

Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant

I am glad I resisted the temptation,
if it was a temptation when I was young,
to write a poem about an old man
eating alone at a corner table in a Chinese restaurant.

I would have gotten it all wrong
thinking; the poor bastard, not a friend in the world
and with only a book for a companion.
He'll probably pay the bill out of a change purse.

So glad I waited all these decades
to record how hot and sour the hot and sour soup is
here at Chang's this afternoon
and how cold the Chinese beer in a frosted glass.
And my book- Jose Saramango's Blindness
as it turns out- is so absorbing that I look up
from its escalating horrors only
when I am stunned by one of his arresting sentences.

And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing every thing it touches-
the plates and teapots, the immaculate tablecloths,
as well as the soft brown hair of the waitress
in the white blouse and short black skirt,
the one who is smiling now as she bears a cup of rice
and shredded beef with garlic to my favorite table in the

Monday, January 10, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Memories in a Blue and Yellow Box

I just returned from Key West for "The Hungry Muse", a literary seminar about food writing. When members of one panel were asked to name the one food that reminded them of their childhood, the food they requested be brought to them when living overseas, it was that humble, processed food in a blue and yellow box- Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Even renowned food humorist Calvin Trillin, who claimed all his mother ever made was leftovers and "the original meal has never been found" insisted on purchasing some at the grocery store for his wife, Alice to prepare. When she did, he discovered it didn't taste as it had in his memory until he ate it the next day. Turns out his mother had been serving him leftover macaroni and cheese as well. In my childhood, my father was an airline pilot and we could always tell when he was away by the dinner my Mom made. Kraft macaroni and cheese, with sauteed ham slices (from a can) and sliced beefsteak tomatoes, was a 'Dad's on a flight" meal and one that I loved. Jane and Michael Stern, authors of Square Meals and other books about American cuisine, recommend using real butter (not margarine) and doubling the cheese packets, for "stupendous" results. I don't know about that, but for a trip down memory lane, there isn't a cheaper or easier yellow brick road, than good ole Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Upsides to the Down Economy/ Split Pea Goodness

I love supper dishes that do double-duty. For example, a pork roast for dinner one night, creates leftovers which turn into bar-b-que pork sandwiches (with corn on the cob and coleslaw) for another night. Imagine my delight in finding a recipe for Split Pea Soup (my all time favorite soup) that uses a leftover ham bone to create a flavorful stock, plus uses up leftover ham. Another plus to this recipe is that it can be made ahead, and simply needs reheating. Made with dried split peas, a leftover ham bone and veggies, it feeds a crowd cheaply. We will be eating it tonight, along with grilled cheese sandwiches oozing with cheddar. This is comfort food to the nth degree, to be sure. Note that the ham stock needs to made the night before and this soup is chunky, not smooth. If you want a smooth split peas soup, you could puree it in the food processor. Featured in my photos is one of my favorite Christmas gifts- a Cutco chef's knife. It's great!

Night-Before Split Pea Soup

1 pd dry split peas
8 cups ham stock (see note)
1 medium onion (3/4 cup chopped)
2 large carrots (for 3/4 cup chopped)
2 large celery ribs (3/4 cups chopped)
1 tsp thyme leaves
2 tsps Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
salt to taste

Pour the split peas into a colander and remove any debris. Rinse the peas and set aside. Bring the ham stock to a boil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel and chop the onions and carrots and add them to the pot. Dice the celery and add it, too. Add the split peas, thyme, Worcestershire, pepper, ham and garlic powder. Simmer 15 to 25 minutes, until the peas and celery are cooked through and tender. Season to taste with salt. Serve at once, or cover and refrigerate for up to three days. If reheating, you made need to thin with stock. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Ham stock

Simmer 1 ham bone, 2 celery ribs (with leaves), 1 peeled and quartered onion, 1 halved carrot, 1 tsp black peppercorns and 2 bay leaves in 12 cups of water, uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour. Drain, discarding solids.