Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Perennial Favorite

Before I moved to the Pacific Northwest, the word ‘lavender’ evoked nothing more than the color of sweater sets, smelly hand lotion from that chain body products store in the mall, or maybe a perfume that a grandma would give you for Christmas.  I knew it was a flower of some sort, but all I could tell you was that it was purple, and it must only grow in the high plateaus of Tibet or something because nothing exotic like that could grow in cold and windy Chicago.  There, we grow crab grass for fun (Look!  It’s Green!!)

Therefore, moving to Seattle was an eye-opening experience for all things ripe, green, and colorful long past Labor Day.  The first winter I spent here I was stunned to find my good German neighbor tending his garden beds in January.  What? January??  The idea that things grew and thrived year-round was a revelation to me.  His garden was full of richly-colored leaves.  His kale was green and plucky, thick and deep in color, the leaves fat with the cool winter rain of the day before.  I thought, well, if those little plants can thrive here year-round, I suppose I may also.     

When I eventually made my way down to Pike Place Market on an exploratory mission with my foodie friend Beth, also new to the city and a future nutritionist, we were delighted to find the most exuberant flowers in every color imaginable (and some I never imagined.)  Wrapped in cool weather jackets and scarves, the oranges and yellows cried out from their brown paper wrapping – won’t you take me home?  Irresistible as golden puppies.  I wanted to take them all home.


Mark's lavender sketch

Beth and I eventually stopped at a stall that was covered in purple flowers.  There were sweet-smelling sachets of burlap to put in drawers, lip balms, and tiny jars of even tinier purple flowers.  Lavender.  The jars were labeled ‘culinary lavender’ which meant, of course, that one would be mine.  The lavender scent was distinctive, but also somehow familiar to me, jogging memories as to when I was working as a server at Chicago’s Hot Chocolate restaurant and the chef made a batch of lavender shortbread for the cookie display case.  It stuck in my memory because I’d never seen or tasted anything like it, sweet and floral but not heady and overbearing like the scent of roses can be.  Lavender, you are such a shy and seductive one. 

Beth and I bought one jar each, tucked them into our purses, and made a commitment to finding out what all the fuss was about with this little perennial.    

At Beth’s house we went straight to her computer and found online so many recipes that called for lavender… lavender biscotti, scones and cookies, meringues, muffins and even pizza.  We wanted something quick and simple - instant gratification.  Lavender Honey Bunches: six ingredients, not including the lavender, and all basic pantry items.  Oats, honey, butter, coconut oil, coconut flakes, and we used sucanat in place of the brown sugar.  Ooohh so good.  And they’re even mildly virtuous with all those oats, coconut and honey!  These two soon-to-be nutritionists were sighing and hmmmm-ing and congratulating ourselves because, well, we must be the first ones on earth to make this recipe (with modifications) in such a superior and tasty way.  We both like to think we put Martha to shame.


Two years and one thousand batches of various baked goods later, I have returned to this recipe and still feel it’s one of my favorites.  So I make these once again, on the occasion of our friends Eric and Cristina’s baby boy being born.  These sweet bunches should enliven our sleep-deprived friends, I hope. 

This time I pluck the lavender from our friends’ own flower garden, smiling and smelling my hands.  Now it is a familiar friend, a way to say goodbye to August, with a bloom that makes me stop and stoop to put my nose near like a bumble-bee searching for sweetness.   

Coming to Seattle two years ago sweetness was what I was searching for, and it seems I’ve found it in so many ways.

Lavender Honey Bunches

Modified from a recipe from Purple Haze Lavender Ltd’s website

 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 cups unsweetened flaked coconut

½ teaspoon sea salt

2/3 cup sucanat (or brown sugar)

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup butter

1/3 cup coconut oil

1 1/2 teaspoons dried lavender

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Take one cup of the rolled oats and whirl in a food processor until it becomes a coarse flour.  Combine this flour with the rest of the oats, coconut and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a heavy saucepan bring sucanat, honey, butter coconut oil and lavender to a boil. Pour over dry ingredients and mix well. Drop dough by the spoonful into a muffin tin, pressing them lightly so they form into the round shape of the tin, until the mixtures reaches the top edge of the muffin cups. Bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly golden, being careful not to overbake. Now this next step is important, after taking the cookies out of the oven, let them cool completely so that they set and firm… or else they will fall apart when you try to remove them.  These should come out chewy, if not reduce baking time by a few minutes.    

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Salad is Born

I suppose it's fitting that the first post in this blog would be about salad.  I've spent the last three months chopping, tossing, plating and crouton-ing half of Washington's yearly tonnage of Romaine leaves.  Needless to say, if I never see another Caesar salad again, it would be too soon.  I've taken the job as garde manger at Seattle's Cafe Flora vegetarian restaurant for the summer.  As anyone who works in restaurants knows, the garde manger (or pantry cook, when you're not trying to impress your friends) is responsible for preparing and serving all things cold or sweet... pates and soba noodles, chocolate tarts and handmade raspberry ice cream.  Working all day around beautiful local ingredients and tasting the inventions of the other cooks in the kitchen, well, there could be worse places to work away the summer hours and, trust me, I've experienced them.  

This stint at the restaurant is the latest in a succession of food jobs I've had over the years... server, bartender, catering assistant, kids culinary instructor, my current occasional shifts at Novelty Hill Januik winery in Woodinville... and while I'm eager to get on with the business of being a nutritionist, there was something strange pulling at my belly (and no, it wasn't just the tofu salad I had for lunch.)  I had to experience working the line, spending hour after hour caramelizing and dicing and boiling and staining my fingers red with beets and red cabbage.  I wanted to see the whole story, from the 8 am making of stock to end of shift when plates were being shot out of the kitchen at lightening speed, line cook sweating and screaming 'Runner!' at full volume to be heard over roaring oven vents.  I wanted to learn, to get the skinny on all that magic that happened when my back was turned as a server, when I was the one being yelled at to get my food out because it was "getting a social security number."  

So here I am, game-face stiffened, feet aching, right hand numb from chopping too much lettuce, and ready to make a friggin' salad that will knock your vegetarian socks off, mamma. 

This Sunday, my day off of work to create on my own, I just couldn't pass up the giant bins of funny-looking melons at the West Seattle farmer's market. There were yellow-fleshed watermelons and orange-fleshed honeydews, cantaloupes all green inside, and according to the gentleman at the market stall "nothing normal". Thank god.  

So I swiped this canary-yellow orange-fleshed honeydew, giddily handed the man two one dollar bills and made my way to fabulous Bakery Nouveau to look for a chocolate brownie for Mark (naturally, his giddiness follows.)

Once home, I was planning on cutting up the melon and dousing it with my favorite European yogurt for an afternoon snack... but instead I found myself wanting a spinach salad... so I tossed in some of the melon, along with avocado, toasted almonds and a simple vinaigrette.  It's a salad I could never be sick of (sorry, Dear Caesar.)  And you don't have to chop baby spinach!    

This salad for me is pure summertime.  Softness, honey sweetness from the perfectly-ripe melon, creamy avocado, tender spinach leaves and a toasty crunch from the almonds.  I took a bite and thanked my tired feet and calloused hands, because somewhere among the green leaves and broccoli stalks I suppose I've learned something.  Something delicious.

Baby Spinach Salad with Melon and Avocado
serves 2

For lunch on a warm day, this salad would be fabulous with our local La Panzanella Croccatini crackers and a soft spanish sheep's milk cheese.

3 cups organic baby spinach leaves
1/2 medium avocado, diced
3/4 cup honeydew or cantaloupe melon, diced
1/4 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped or crushed

 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 pinches sea salt
2 pinches freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, place spinach, melon, avocado and almonds, set aside.  In a small bowl or a jar with tight-fitting lid, place all ingredients for vinaigrette and stir or shake until well-combined, pour over salad and toss until leaves are glossy with dressing.