Saturday, May 26, 2012

14,000 Feet and Some Orange Ricotta Pancakes

We moved to Colorado about 8 months ago. This was around the time the uber-delicious Linger opened in Denver (yay!) and many of the mountain passes began to closed for the season. In October, or maybe it was November, we had set out to hike in the areas surrounding Mt. Evans. We soon discovered that the roads were already closed. Snow had accumulated at the higher elevations and the roads were considered unsafe by those in charge.
Mt. Evans is high. I'm talking over 14,000 feet high. I haven't been to such heights since hiking Cotopaxi in Ecuador about 7 years ago...and for those of you who know me, you might recall that hike didn't go very well. Cotopaxi is a stratovolcano and it reaches over 19,000 feet. Now I don't remember exactly where I was, but let's say that it was 16,000 feet. We were well above the tree-line, the air was thin, and I remember that the only sensation I had was to urinate (pardon me, but apparently this is very common). I felt really short of breath and wasn't sure if I could make the hike. In fact, I wasn't sure I was going to make it...period! I told my then boyfriend/now husband to go on without "save himself." And indeed he did. He told me that he would come back and get me after he got to where we were supposed to meet the rest of our group. In the meantime I managed to crawl on all fours and I found my group. I was exhausted. The rest of the story isn't so important. Obviously I made it, but the scars of going up into the sky left their mark on my psyche. I was nervous about being that high again.
After a long winter closure, the gates to Mt. Evans reopened today (May 25th) at 12:00. We just had to go! Thinking like typical New Yorkers we were sure there was going to be a line of cars and weren't even certain we would get in. But there were no big lines, cars went in and out of the gate with ease, and we decided to take the boys on a walk through an alpine forest, right around the tree-line. (I suspect things get crowded on the weekend, but on opening-day things were easy as could be.)
The mountains were absolutely spectacular. Idaho Springs, the closest "city" to Mt. Evans, is only 45 minutes away from our house in Denver. Add another 20 minutes on winding roads with phenomenal views and you can get pretty remote pretty quickly. It's really amazing. As far as feeling nauseated or short-of-breath, the sensations were slight. I guess that is another benefit of living at altitude; I was already a bit acclimated.
Otis didn't seem to notice the altitude and Theo was just happy to be clapping his hands (his newest trick). We then continued on to Summit Lake and from there we got to the very top of Mt. Evans. Amazing. Spectacular. Sensational. And cold. Temperatures in Denver were around 80 degrees today. At Mt. Evans they were 20 something. Brrrr. And beautiful.
On the way down we saw a pair of mountain goats and a some yellow-bellied marmots (cute!). Otis had been on the lookout for mountain goats for about 1/2 hour, but by the time we spotted them he was sleeping soundly in the backseat...
Of course before you head out for high-altitude walks you need to eat a solid breakfast. I made these Orange-Ricotta Pancakes for the occasion. The recipe comes from The Breslin (in the Ace Hotel in NYC). I thought it was a really nice change from our standard buttermilk pancakes and my (relatively-new) favorite oatmeal pancakes. The syrup really added to the pancakes but, truth be told, the consistency was very un-syrupy. I'm not sure what went wrong, as I followed the instructions exactly. Perhaps it had something to do with the altitude. Never the less, they were delicious and a wonderful way to start out the day.
{Note: use a good, fresh ricotta for this recipe...or don't...but I think that makes a difference. I used a local cheese from LazEwe 2 Bar Goat Dairy in Colorado.
Orange Ricotta Pancakes (From The Breslin, by way of Food & Wine)
1 orange
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
RICOTTA TOPPING (I omitted this step, but will add it next time)
1 1/2 cups fresh ricotta
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup fine white cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup fresh ricotta
Vegetable oil, for frying
Toasted almond slices, for serving
Peel the zest from the orange in long strips and julienne. In a saucepan of boiling water, blanch the zest for 30 seconds. Drain and repeat. In the saucepan, simmer the orange juice, sugar, water and blanched zest until syrupy, about 10 minutes. Let cool.
In a bowl, mix together all of the ingredients. (This step is for the ricotta topping)
In a large bowl, whisk the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda. In another large bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg yolks and ricotta. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. In a large, clean stainless steel bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry; fold them into the batter.
In a large cast-iron skillet, heat a thin film of vegetable oil. Drop in 1/4-cup dollops of batter and cook over moderately high heat, 2 minutes per side, until golden and fluffy. Serve about 3 pancakes per person. Pass the orange syrup, ricotta topping and toasted almonds at the table.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Asparagus Bisque with Fresh Dill (and some Black and Whites)

After a long winter break, the farmers markets were (finally) slated to reopen. But hail and rain were in the forecast and just as I stepped out the door it started raining...hard. The prospect of going to the market on the other side of town, with a toddler and infant in tow (sans the protection of our trusty umbrella which somehow disappeared), just didn't seem worth it. 
So I decided to go to In Season, our local market that only stocks locally grown produce that season. "We are at the end of asparagus season here in Colorado," I was told by an incredibly knowledgeable woman at the counter. "Right, of course you are," I said. No asparagus. But I really wanted to make this bisque that I had seen in Love Soup by Anna Thomas.
While I try to purchase local, sustainable, seasonal fare as much as possible (it tastes better and is often cheaper), if I'm craving something that is not exactly in season, it's no big deal. I found some really bright, delicious looking asparagus at the Sunflower Market by my house (grown in California), but before I left In Season I picked up some dill, fennel bulb and the most amazing (makes you want to clap your hands) ricotta cheese made by Laz Ewe 2 Bar Goat Dairy in Del Norte, Colorado. Oh man, that is the good stuff!
About the bisque. It is packed with fresh dill and the lemon juice gives it a nice cut of acid. And, like all of Anna's recipes I've made before, it was delicious. (Anna's Old Fashioned Mushroom Soup.)
I topped a toasted crostini with some goat cheese and served it along side a big bowl of bisque. That really made the meal complete. 
Asaparagus Bisque with Fresh Dill (Courtesy of Anna Thomas, Love Soup)
1 1/4 lbs. green asparagus
2 medium leeks
1 large fennel bulb
zest+juice of a lemon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (you could substitute with olive oil)
3 tablespoons arborio rice 
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
2 1/2 cups light vegetable broth
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill, plus more to taste
white pepper (I used black)
2-3 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)
Using a vegetable peeler or sharp knife, thinly peel the bottom 2 or 3 inches of the asparagus stalks, then snap off the toughest bits at the bottoms (peeling the bottoms first allows you to keep much more of the stalk.) Cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces; you should have about 4 cups.
Wash the leeks and chop the white and light green parts only. Trim, wash, and chop the fennel bulb. Grate the zest of the lemon, making sure to get only the yellow and none of the white pith.
Melt the butter in a large skillet or soup pot and cook the leeks over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until they are soft and begin to take on a hint of color. Add the asparagus, fennel, lemon zest, rice, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer uncovered for about half an hour, or until all the vegetables are tender.
Add 2 cups of vegetable broth, the dill, and a pinch of each pepper and cayenne.
Puree the soup in a blender, in batches, until it is perfectly smooth. (I usually use an immersion blender for pureed soups, but asparagus is fibrous, so you might want to use that blender in order to get it really smooth.) Add broth if the soup seems too thick. Return the pureed soup to a clean pot and stir in a couple of teaspoons of fresh lemon juice, more if you like. Bring the soup back to a simmer, taste it ,and season with tiny amounts of pepper, and more salt if needed. Stir in 2-3 tablespoons of cream if you are making the asparagus a bisque (or more precisely a "cream soup" as traditionally bisque refers to smooth, cream soups, based on a broth from crustaceans).
Ladle and enjoy!
* * *
As I mentioned, we had a rainy Saturday here in Denver, so it was a good excuse for us to stay indoors. While we weren't able to go to the farmers market, we tidied up our little abode and we also did a lot of cooking...
Roasted Potato, Leek and Kale Soup (by way of Not-Eating-Out-In-New-York)
Spinach and Feta Risotto (by way of Ezra Pound Cake)
Zucchini Olive-Oil Cake with Crunchy Lemon Glaze (posted here on Sparrows & Spatulas)
Beet and Tahini Dip (by way of A Lovely Morning)

Sensing that the boys were restless and could use some physical activity, I opted to let them "up-down-up-down" on our bed. Then I took these black and white photos with my 50mm lens, which I'm still fooling around with.
It wasn't long before the rain stopped and the sun was out again. The next 10 days? Sunny with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. And hopefully a lot of farmers markets in our future...
Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Follow Me on Pinterest

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Japanophilic: Kizuna and Black Sesame Otsu

Some people use the word obsessed pretty casually. Not me. I reserve the word for things that I am absolutely nuts about-- things that really preoccupy my mind. Examples of such things include the Momofuku/Milk Bar Birthday Cake Truffles, Pinterest and Japanese design. I'm also (mildly) obsessed with bamboo. A fast growing, incredibly strong grass, bamboo has become popular in green design and building. And bamboo forests are just the coolest. 
I was really excited when I heard that Kizuna (which means the "bond between people" in Japanese) was going to be on display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I mean, c'mon. Japanese installation art with bamboo? It's just too good to be true!  
Kizuna: West Meets East is a series of pieces that were created by Tetsunori Kawana and Stephen Talasnik. The bamboo was plied and manipulated to form bold, striking pieces on land and more intricate, delicate water-based sculptures. The ephemeral forms play off the landscape's really something you should check out if you live in the city.   
In addition to the installation art, pretty much every inch of the botanic gardens is in bloom right now. There are peonies, irises, and poppies. We saw butterflies fluttering and colorful beds that were buzzing with bees. And the wildflower patches? They are pretty much what I hope my own garden will look day!
As if the spring  blooms and Kizuna were not enough, the annual plant sale is also taking place. Otis really wanted a 'blue plant' and I found one that was just the right size. He named the plant Walter, which I think is a pretty good name for a potted lobelia. When I found out that it was buy one-get one free, we went back to the tables and picked out another plant. Otis named the second plant Alice-- which I think is in honor of "Imo" Alice who gifted Otis and Theo their very first Radio Flyer wagon..and boy do they love it! 
After we returned from the gardens it was nap time. The boys shluffed and I read up on Bonsai trees and maintenance. I regret to inform you that I think I'm getting a little bit obsessed...

Inspired by Kizuna, I made this Japanese-style soba (buckwheat) dish for lunch. I used a whole bunch of scallions (light and dark parts) that were fresh from the farmers market. Though scallions are available year round, this is their season and their flavor is delicious.
The recipe comes from my un-official bible, Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Black Sesame Otsu (Courtesy of Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Every Day)
Serves 4.
1 teaspoon pine nuts
1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
1/2 cup black sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons mirin
Scant 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Fine-grain sea salt
12 ounces / 340 g soba noodles
12 ounces / 340 g extra-firm tofu
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
  • Toast the pine nuts and sunflower seeds in a large skillet over medium heat until golden, shaking the pan regularly. Add the sesame seeds to the pan and toast for a minute or so. It's hard to tell when they are toasted; look closely and use your nose. Remove from the heat as soon as you smell a hint of toasted sesame; if you let them go much beyond that, you'll start smelling burned sesame - not good. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush the mixture; the texture should be like black sand. Alternatively, you can use a food processor. Stir in the sugar, shoyu, mirin, sesame oil, brown rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust if needed.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously, add the soba, and cook according to the package instructions until tender. Drain, reserving some of the noodle cooking water, and rinse under cold running water.
  • While the noodles are cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into matchstick shapes. Season the tofu with a pinch of salt, toss with a small amount of oil, and cook in a large skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, tossing every couple minutes, until the pieces are browned on all sides.
  • Reserve a heaping tablespoon of the sesame paste, then thin the rest with 1/3 cup / 80 ml of the hot noodle water. In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, half of the green onions, and the black sesame paste. Toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Serve topped with a tiny dollop of the reserved sesame paste and the remaining green onions.

For another Heidi Swanson soba dish click Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing. It comes from Super Natural Cooking
Follow Me on Pinterest