Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Burgess Grill, Lawton, Oklahoma - 'Great Burgers and More'

The door swings open slowly, letting in a cluster of hungry customers and just enough light to give one an impression of the interior.  A peg-board sign, emblazoned with out-dated Coca-Cola advertising, declares the day's menu - the usual burgers, sandwiches, fries and onion rings - while a small, glass-fronted case displays a wide array of candy bars for those in need of something more sugary and less substantial.  Tall plastic bottles of ketchup and mustard stand sentry at each crowded table, with the attendant stubby, glass sugar-shakers and tiny vials of salt and pepper. Regular customers lean against the upholstered bar, perched on round stools covered in matching black vinyl.  A glass cabinet displays a selection of pies and, next to it, a coffee-maker percolates continually, making small contented noises and filling the room with a caffeinated haze.

It's a familiar enough description - one that could put you in almost any mom-and-pop diner in any small town in rural America.  But today, the town is Lawton, OK, and the diner is Burgess Grill. Like Meers Store & Restaurant, this is another local institution with a rich, small-town history - one that goes back to 1962, when Shizuko and Robert Burgess bought an existing downtown diner and christened it with their family name.  Burgess Grill has remained a family-run business in the forty years since, though Shizuko now runs it with the help of her daughter Dana.  Ask any Lawtonian for a lunch recommendation and you're likely to be directed here; in fact, it's so popular that the restaurant has expanded into the neighboring shopfront to keep up with the lunchtime rush.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Goodbye, Oklahoma! (Hello, Vegas!)

Well, our cupboards are bare, our things are packed and our last few days in Oklahoma have arrived.  We've only been here six months, but we've made friends and put down a few roots that we'll be sad to leave behind.  I've moved so many times in my life (this is our fourth move in one year!) that I should expect to be a professional by now, but the truth is that it's never really easy and always a little heart-breaking, even when you're ready and excited to be moving on.  One of the things I love about moving often is that I'm always traveling and my perspective is always changing.  Of course, it's important to keep that in mind during the more painful parts of the process.

By now, we've said most of our goodbyes and all that remains is to get in the car and drive.  From Oklahoma, we'll be road-tripping across the western United States to Las Vegas where we'll be on assignment for a couple of weeks (tough job, I know!).  Then it's back across the country to our new home, somewhere in Tennessee.

I'm not sure exactly what this means for the blog - apart from the fact that I'll have no kitchen (which means no baking!) for over a month - but I hope to keep up with regular posts and am eager to see what exciting travel and food finds we uncover in Las Vegas and en route.  I already have my eye on a few key stops (including Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Utah, the ultra-famous Bouchon Bakery, and the little-known, but utterly amazing, Lotus of Siam restaurant, in Las Vegas) which I hope to review for the blog, but there are also a few recipes and stories saved up so, even if Las Vegas turns out to disappoint, I can assure you that the blog won't be completely neglected. I'm also open to travel and food suggestions for our weeks in Vegas and our travels 'out West,' so send them if you have them!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Road Trip Muffins!

As one of my last acts of baking in our Oklahoma apartment, I whipped up a batch of muffins for the road. I was limited to the ingredients on hand, which means they turned out to be Pumpkin Banana Grape-Nut Muffins.  They're waiting, in the freezer, for our departure this week, but Matt and I sampled a couple fresh out of the oven - for quality control purposes, of course!

I was actually quite pleased with the texture of the cereal in the muffin, but I think the recipe still needs some tweaking - it came out a little more cake-like than I'd hoped.  The addition of an extra banana or two would probably fix this and give the muffins a more appealing flavor since they're not very sweet and taste rather strongly of pumpkin. On the plus side, they're actually pretty healthy, with very little added fat and a protein boost from the yogurt, so these might make a good, health-conscious snack. I've yet to see just how well they travel, but I'll provide the recipe anyway, for those who are interested, and report back on their performance on the road. In any case, they take a pretty picture!

(Update: These muffins were a great treat on our cross-country road trip - we even hiked them down into the Grand Canyon where they made a perfect mid-hike snack! I even liked the flavor better there than when we tested them fresh from the oven.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Travel Tips: Sleep Cheap in Europe (Part II)

In Sleep Cheap in Europe (Part I), I tackled the subject of youth hostels and described how they can provide cheap accommodation in addition to some really memorable travel experiences.  Growing up, youth hostels were my family's accommodation of choice, but I understand that they're not exactly everyone's cup of tea.  Part II is for those who prefer a bit more personal attention and privacy, but still relish the chance to stay in unique locations and possibly save a few pennies.  Perhaps this segment should be titled 'Sleep Fairly Cheap in Europe" because the pensions and bed-and-breakfasts I'll cover here are usually a bit more pricey than hostels, but still cheaper, and more full of character, than your average hotel.

The quaint pension where we stayed in Valetta, Malta

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I-Can't-Believe-There's-No-Butter: Accidentally Vegan, Intentionally Delicious Chocolate Cake

I'm well aware that I've been posting a lot of sweet and guilty recipes lately, so I thought I'd try to balance it out a little by posting one that only looks sweet and guilty.  Well, it's still sweet but this rich chocolate cake has a healthy little secret - it's vegan.  I'm a bit ashamed to say that this is the first consciously vegan recipe I've ever tried and, yes, it comes from that standard of vegan cookery, the "Veganomicon" (by way of Kim O'Donnel's blog for the Washington Post).  I'm also ashamed to say that I tried it by accident - but I'll certainly be making it on purpose in the future.

And this awful picture is the only one I got of this delicious cake! I wish it did it justice...

How exactly does one make a vegan cake, or any cake, by accident? Well, you see, Matt and I decided to have some friends over on a whim one night last week, and I'm the kind of hostess who always wants to have something sweet and tasty to serve her guests - mostly because I like to eat sweet, tasty things, and it gives me an excuse to bake more frequently.  You've already heard, more than once, that we only have bread flour left in the house (before this move is over, I could probably write a whole book of recipes using only bread flour) but we've also run out of eggs and butter, so now baking requires some serious determination and creativity.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Camino de Santiago: or Why I walked my way across Spain

It may sound unusual, but there are few things I enjoy as much as walking.  Quite apart from the everyday transit from 'A to B,' I love walking as a form of travel and exploration.  I've traversed Germany by train, ridden a bus across Belgium, and even meandered through Botswana's Okavango Delta in a makoro, but many of my most memorable explorations have been fueled by nothing more than a sense of adventure and my own two feet; to borrow the words of the immortal Jane Austen, "I prefer walking."

The rapturously green French Pyrenees

My siblings and I used to walk ourselves to school growing up in England, and when I was sixteen, I spent a summer backpacking across the southern tip of Africa.  At eighteen, I planned an end-to-end walk of Great Britain (from Land’s End in southern England to John O’ Groat’s at the northernmost part of Scotland) and only military orders prevented me from trying it.  I’ve walked in the Yorkshire Dales, paced through the desert of southern Arizona and rambled through Bavarian forests.  Even now, in dusty Oklahoma, I prefer two feet to four wheels for most distances under 10 miles. At 26 years old, I’ve never even owned a car.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that I jumped at the chance to walk over 500 miles across the entire width of Spain, following a medieval pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James.  This past summer, I had month of free time and the whole of Europe at my disposal, with my home in Germany as the starting point.  My brother was the one who suggested the walk – he’d done it himself in 2001, while I was trekking across Africa – and it took only a few hours of research for me to make up my mind.  Twelve days and many frantic hours of preparation packing later, I was on a flight to Pamplona armed with no more than the boots on my feet (not yet broken in!) and the bag on my back.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Meers Store & Restaurant: Home of the 'Best Burger in Oklahoma'...and, possibly, the world?

Meers' Eclectic Storefront

If you've spent any length of time in southwestern Oklahoma, you've probably heard people talking about a place called Meers.  It's exactly the kind of restaurant that people always talk about - an out-of-the-way, word-of-mouth local favorite that's been serving up legendary food for longer than anyone can remember.  In Meers' case, the 'out-of-the-way' location is way out in the middle of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, the 'legendary food' is their famous, extra-lean and beefy Longhorn burger, and the 'longer than anyone can remember' is over a century.  In short, Meers is a small place with a lot of character, serving up the biggest Longhorn burgers you're likely to find anywhere on earth.

How their quirky menus explain their hours!

Matt and I have made the 40-minute drive out to Meers a handful of times since moving to Oklahoma but, since our time here is short, we decided to make one last pilgrimage to what has become one of our local favorites.  It's important to plan your visit carefully - they're closed on Tuesdays and arriving at any time close to a regular meal time will only ensure you a place in a line that's always lengthy and often snakes out the door and around the building!  For this reason, we spent the morning hiking around the Wildlife Refuge and timed our visit to Meers for the lull between lunch and dinner, arriving hungry and without a line at all.

The cats at Meers are used to waiting in line - he even brought a magazine!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Leftover Gnocchi for Breakfast, Czech-style

Nothing fancy, today - just a plate of delicious, leftover gnocchi cooked up with light and fluffy scrambled eggs in the style of my Mum's leftover Czech dumplings.  I'm sorry to any Italian readers who think this is a sacrilege, but they really are delicious.  They may not look it, but you'll have to trust me!

Growing up, dumplings-and-eggs was a favorite breakfast treat, to be looked forward to on the morning after any special occasion.  My mother usually made pork tenderloins, with sauerkraut and dumplings for dinner and, though the dumplings were nearly everyone's favorite part of this traditional family meal, we always tried to save a few to be enjoyed the following morning when our appetites finally sharpened.

The texture of these gnocchi reminded me so much of my mother's dumplings that I knew they would be good with eggs as well.  I had no problem saving a few as the recipe made so many!  The sage is a welcome addition and the dish is so simple to prepare - spritz a frying pan with oil and heat the gnocchi until they just begin to brown and crisp (this adds flavor and helps the eggs adhere), beat together a few eggs, with milk if you wish, add to the pan and stir until cooked.  Sometimes the best dishes are the simple ones that owe their origins to a mix of cuisines - this one is no exception.  If you make the gnocchi (and you should!) be sure to save a few and give it a try!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies

For the past several days, my mind has been consumed with thoughts of a tragedy playing out thousands of miles from where I write, in chaos on the shores and in the towns and villages of Japan.  I've been wrestling with whether or not I should approach this topic and, if so, how to do it in a way that is fitting and respectful.  Does such a way even exist?  I see the footage and look at the photos, unable to comprehend that kind of destruction, and the realization that I can do nothing is profoundly frustrating.  It seems somehow selfish to be writing about food and life and daily doings when the lives of others have been so abruptly and horrifically transformed.

While I sit in the warmth and security of my apartment, cup of tea in hand, others see only refuse and desolation where their homes once were.   I cook an evening meal for myself and Matthew while others wander the streets in search of lost loved ones, no roof over their heads and no food to fill their stomachs.  I call my family and check in with friends overseas, all of whom are fine, while others grapple with the awful news they had prayed never to hear.  It is a horrible lesson in the frailty of humanity and our desperate need for something beyond our fragile, earthly existence.

At the same moment that these terrifying events are taking place in Japan, I am in my Oklahoma kitchen, baking.  While I enjoy cooking and the fruits of that endeavor, baking has always been my solace, my haven, my comfort zone.  When the cares of the day or the worries of the world weigh heavy on my mind, I find ease and reassurance in the folds of an apron and the stirring of a wooden spoon.  Somehow, these familiar gestures steady and stabilize me in the midst of a spinning world.  Quite apart from the usually delicious things it produces, I love the process of baking; the small, repetitive motions, the familiar stages and the interactions of ingredients, the pleasant aromas as everything comes together and the knowledge that, at the end of it, I have created and accomplished something, even if that something is only a freshly-steaming loaf of bread or a platter of still-warm chocolate chip cookies.

My kitchen is nearly bare, in preparation for our move next week, but I have so much in comparison to so many others.  It makes me wonder at how easily we become complacent, satisfied with the comfort and ignorance of our easy lives, and what a great tragedy it takes to make us sit up, take notice of our blessings and be grateful.  And I am grateful, so grateful that my family is safe, my loved ones have been spared and that I live in a place and time that permits me to pursue a life full of things I love.

As the soft, familiar dough of chocolate chip cookies takes shape in the bowl in front of me, I thank God for these things and pray for those whose lives have just changed, irrevocably.  I wish that I could send them these cookies, not that they would ease their suffering in any measurable way, but simply so that they would know that others have noticed it and that many prayers and thoughts are with them and their struggling nation.  It's a little gesture that seems feeble against the scale of this human tragedy, but the reality is that there is little more we can do than pray for the rebuilding and restoration of their lives, while resolving to be grateful for the blessings of our own.  So if you make these cookies, enjoy them, savor the process and the few normal moments of life and spare a moment for those surrounded by suffering, for whom the daunting process of rebuilding and returning, somehow, to some kind of 'normal' has yet to begin.

Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies
adapted from this recipe by Alton Brown
(I chose this as a base recipe because it actually calls for bread flour, which is all I have, but the browned butter and other changes are my own)

2 sticks (or 1 cup) butter, unsalted
2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk (I used skim)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-2 cups semisweet chocolate, chopped (to taste)

Preheat oven to 375 ° F.  In a small saucepan over low to medium heat, melt butter, stirring occasionally, until browned.  This will probably take several minutes and the butter may foam as the milk solids separate - don't worry, this is normal! Just watch for the first sign of caramel brown color and then remove the butter from heat.  It will keep cooking if you leave it in the saucepan (and burt butter tastes acrid and horrid!) so I usually remove it to another container or the mixing bowl at this point.  Allow the butter to cool.

While the butter is cooling, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda into a large bowl and set aside.  Pour the melted butter into a large mixing bowl and add the sugars.  Cream together until well blended.  Add the eggs, milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined.  Gradually add in the dry ingredients (about 1/2 cup at a time) until thoroughly mixed.  Do not overwork or dough will become tough (bread flour has a lot of gluten so overworked dough will yield slightly 'bready'/cakey cookies).  Stir in chopped chocolate by hand.

Chill the dough and scoop onto a non-stick or parchment-lined baking sheet, allowing ample space between cookies (about 9 cookies per sheet).  Bake for 8-12 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from baking sheet, allow to cool and store in an airtight container.  Share with loved ones or those in need of home-baked comfort.

Some tips:  As I said before, this recipe was born of a need to bake and a poorly stocked pantry so it may be a little different from the usual chocolate chip recipe - it still yields delicious cookies.  This was my first time using brown butter in a cookie and I think it makes a nice addition, contributing a denser, chewier texture and a rich, buttery flavor that makes this simple cookie a little more sophisticated and much more comforting.  The brown butter flavor was very pronounced in the dough (not that I'm advocating eating raw dough - do as I say, not as I do!) but got a little lost in the cookies fresh out of the oven.  It's interesting, then, that it reappeared in the cookies we ate the next day.  I can't believe I'm saying this, since I usually like my cookies straight off the pan, but I think this variety was actually better a day after baking.  Perhaps that makes them ideal for sending to loved ones or those in need of a rich buttery, chocolatey pick-me-up.

The bread flour makes for a very chewy cookie but also means that these cookies can easily become cakey.  Since I'm a fan of gooey, chewy cookies, I had to be careful not to over mix the dough or over bake.  If you like them lighter and cake-like, just let your mixer run a little longer.

I baked some of the dough immediately, chilled some for a few hours and some overnight.  While I didn't notice a huge difference with the overnight dough, I did see a big change between the instant gratification cookies and the chilled dough.  I'd definitely recommend chilling, covered, for at least an hour or two if possible.

Watch the time because these cookies go quickly once they start to brown.  I accidentally over-baked a batch but I was glad to see that, though they were a little more bronzed than their just-baked cousins, they still kept their soft texture.  It seems to be a pretty resilient recipe - which is good for a comforting cookie with a big job to do.

This post linked up at:
Sweet As Sugar Cookies: Sweets for a Saturday

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pumpkin and Parmesan Gnocchi with Rubbed Sage and Browned Butter

Even though I don't have a drop of Italian blood in my body, I've always been drawn to Italian foods.  There's something rich and luxurious about the idea of Italian cooking (fresh-pressed olive oil? earthy truffles? sun-ripened, tomatoes fresh from the vine? all those delightful aged cheeses?) that could tempt even the most teutonic cook to try their hand at a mediterranean dish or two.  For me, this desirable dish has always been gnocchi.  I love these little pillows of dumpling delight for their versatility and, possibly, for their more-than-slight resemblance to the Eastern European dumplings of my youth.

I have always promised myself that, someday, I would make my own gnocchi from scratch.  After years of promises, that someday finally arrived last week.  For the past several days I've been slowly clearing out our cupboards and freezer in preparation for our upcoming move.  This has made for a few unusual meals, but it has also encouraged me to try new things and new combinations of ingredients.  When I discovered some pumpkin puree in the freezer (the remains of the Pumpkin of Shame - remember him?) I just knew I had to make pumpkin gnocchi.  Luckily, I had a few potatoes in the cupboard and a scant quarter cup of parmesan in the fridge - the time had come.

With no Italian nonna to whisper instructions over my shoulder, I scoured the web for recipes and eventually came up with a version that is largely inspired by the few ingredients left in my cupboards and based on this recipe by Emeril Lagasse, with some helpful hints on technique from Heidi at 101 Cookbooks.

Of course, before there's a recipe, there has to be a brief history lesson.  Aren't you fascinated by the fact that dumplings, in some form or another, exist in almost every country across the European continent? Well, I was, so I did some digging and the answer, of course, is the Romans.  The oldest written recipe for gnocchi comes from 1300s Italy, but the pasta is much, much older.  The word gnocchi comes from the Italian nocchio, meaning a knot of wood, or nocca, meaning knuckle, but the pasta is believed to be of Middle Eastern origin, brought by the Roman Legions as their empire expanded across Europe.  In the 2000 years that have passed since, many countries have developed their own variations on the original, with German Spaetzle, Polish kopytka and Czech knedlicky as some modern examples.  The original Roman version was made with semolina and eggs, as are some modern variations, though the addition of the potato is a relatively recent innovation, occurring some time after the one-maligned potato arrived in Europe in the 16th century. So now you know!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Ultimate Thin Mint Brownies!

It's mid-March and that can mean only two things - Girl Scout cookie season is upon us and St. Patrick's Day is fast approaching! What better way to combine and celebrate the two than to bake up some festive-looking, minty fresh and indulgent Thin Mint Brownies.

I was an adult before I tasted these mystical, magical, once-a-year cookies (Girl Scouts are called Girl Guides in England, and they don't have cookie sales - their loss, in my opinion) and it was love at first bite.  I have a weakness for chocolate so I don't usually buy them, but somehow a box appeared in our apartment when I was gone just over a week ago.  The Girl Scout recipe is tried and tested - these sweet little girls have been selling cookies since 1917 and an early version of Thin Mints appeared in 1951- but I decided to steal a couple from the sleeve and try one of my own.

There's a simple version of the Thin Mint Brownie on the Little Brownie Bakers website (just add crushed Thin Mints to your favorite boxed mix), but this is not that brownie.  I have to confess that I did use a boxed mix (my excuse being that we're out of flour) but you could, and should, substitute your favorite basic brownie recipe and just make the modifications suggested below.  I would recommend a dark/bittersweet recipe to contrast with the bright, sweetness of the mint.  I used a milk chocolate box, which was all we had on hand, and it ended up much too sweet.

Check out that crackly top!
These brownies are studded with crushed Thin Mints and swirled with peppermint icing before baking.  Under heat, the icing creates a crackly mint toping and a sweet, very fudgy center.  I baked mine in muffin cups (I like bite-size brownies) but I'm sure you could use a regular 9x9-inch pan or whatever your normal recipe calls for.  In the interests of saving Matt's cookies and my waistline, I made only a mini batch but there's no reason the recipe shouldn't work with a whole batch.  Here's what you need:

The Ultimate Thin Mint Brownies
1 whole batch of your favorite brownie recipe, unbaked
1 sleeve Thin Mints cookies

Mint Icing Swirl:
8 Tablespoons butter, softened
2 Cups powdered sugar
2 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
3-4 drops green food coloring (as desired)

Blend brownie batter and crushed cookies.  Stir until just combined.  Pour into greased baking pan.  To prepare icing, combine butter, sugar, 1 Tablespoon milk and peppermint extract.  Add additional milk as needed to achieve the proper texture.  The icing should be spreadable but not too thick.  Spoon strips of icing across brownie batter and use a warm knife to marble.  Bake at 350 ° F for slightly less than the length of time directed on your recipe.  Watch closely near the end of baking since the icing sugar may overflow (and nobody wants burnt sugar on the bottom of their oven!).  Brownies are done when the edges begin to pull away from the side of the pan and the center no longer appears liquid - it will still be dark and fudgy from the melted sugar.  Remove brownies from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.  Run knife around the edges of the pan to loosen.  Allow to cool in pan.  Use any remaining icing to decorate and garnish with crushed Thin Mints.  Enjoy while you can - at least you know they'll be back next year!

Matt and I have a funny little Thin Mint story from our pre-marriage days when he was living overseas and had no access to his favorite, crispy mint wafers.  Unfortunately, Girl Scout cookie season had already passed in my area and I scoured the web for black market Thin Mints or a suitable substitute.  I whipped up a batch from Heidi Swanson's recipe at 101 Cookbooks with the intent of packing them up and sending them overseas.  In the process, I burned almost every one of my fingers on the molten chocolate and discovered that the coating I used wasn't temperature-stable enough to survive the trip.  I ended up bringing a few to work and eating all the rest - and, boy, were they delicious.  I used to think Girl Scout cookies were a little pricey, but Thin Mints are worth every penny.  Thankfully, this brownie recipe is a lot less work!

In the off season, rather than resorting to similar desperate measures, you can get your Girl Scout cookie fix on their website.  There's lot of history to explore, FAQs and even a recipe from the early days Girl Scout of cookies when these tasty treats were still homemade.  You can also find other recipes on the manufacturers' websites (Little Brownie Bakers and ABC Bakers) or dream up some of your own.  Happy Baking!

This post is linked at:
33 Shades of Green: Tasty Tuesdays
Mom's Crazy Cooking: This Week's Cravings
Sweet as Sugar Cookies: Sweets for a Saturday
Alli N' Son: Sweet Tooth Friday

Monday, March 14, 2011

You Are What You Eat: A Look at My Culinary Heritage

Many of the foods and recipes I make, and the ones that appear on this blog, are influenced by places I've been to - England, Germany, Italy, or Spain, for example - but others are influenced by the places I come from.  Although I'm a third generation American, my family still has ties to the countries that brought us here and their traditions inform many aspects of our lives. Of course, one of the most obvious areas of influence is in the foods we prepare and enjoy - I call this my culinary heritage.

My ancestors on both my father's and mother's sides are mostly German, Czech and Slovak (with a bit of Ukrainian and Polish mixed in) so I grew up with an affinity for hearty Eastern European fare.  Daily menus were 'American' or a fusion of many cuisines (my mother was the original culinary traveler in our family!) but special occasions warranted a return to our roots; usually with pork tenderloin (veprova pecene) heavily spiced with caraway and served with handmade bread dumplings (knedlicky) and sauerkraut (zeli). 'Pork, Sauerkraut and Dumplings', as the meal is known in our family, is the staple of birthdays, holidays and pretty much any other occasion that might lend an excuse to indulge in our favorite meal.

Roasting pork in Prague - one of the most common meats in Czech cooking
(picture courtesy of my sister during her visit to me in Germany!)

The smell of caraway still reminds me of family gatherings and I have always considered my mother's firm-but-tender bread dumplings to be something magical and mysterious that no one else can replicate. Indeed, even a trip to the Czech Republic in 2010 left me still searching for a knedlick that could come close to their sweet, doughy perfection.  Many a boyfriend was put to the test with our family meal (because dating someone who doesn't enjoy heaping servings of sauerkraut or oceans of rich, brown gravy would be patently unthinkable) and if you're ever lucky enough to be in our house on Christmas day, you'll surely be able to try it yourself.

Of course, our home-country cooking isn't limited to a single meal.  No Christmas-cookie season would be complete without some form of Lebkuchen (spiced, gingerbread-like cookies from Germany for which I have a great recipe that I will one day share!) or Czech sugar cookies, which are made with powdered sugar and magically develop their own creamy, butter-and-sugar frosting when baked.  Easter is an occasion for the Osterlamm - a lamb-shaped cake baked in a special pan brought over from Germany.  Leftover Easter ham gets turned into flicky, a surprisingly sweet, Czech noodle dish made with brown sugar, ham, noodles and butter, while leftover dumplings (if there are any, which is rare) get scrambled with eggs and served for breakfast.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Travel Tips: Sleep Cheap in Europe (Part I)

This travel tip comes courtesy of all the family jaunts we took when I was growing up in England.  My parents had a love for travel and a great sense of adventure, but with five children and themselves to accommodate, economy was the watchword.  I credit their frugality with all the wonderful, global experiences I've had, and many of the 'sleep cheap' tips I've gathered were inherited from them.

Hostelling International

One of the best kept lodging secrets in Europe is the network of Youth Hostels that spans almost any European country you might find yourself in.  The idea originated in Germany, where they're called Jugenherbergen, but now you can find them all over the world.  Most countries have their own hostelling association (DJH in Germany, and YHA in the UK, for example) but around 90 of these local associations have been organized under the worldwide association, Hostelling International.  This organization has an all-purpose webpage which allows you to view locations  in the US and across the globe and even book beds online.  There is a membership fee (non-members may still be allowed to stay in hostels, subject to availability and the possibility of a small extra charge) but if you plan on traveling often, in areas where hostels are plentiful, it can be a smart investment.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Discovery in a Roman Market - My First Blood Orange

I remember the first time I ever saw a blood orange.  Several years ago, I visited Rome with a good friend and we spent a delightful few days wandering through cobbled streets, searching out storied landmarks, losing ourselves in serpentine alleys and just generally discovering the beauty of antiquity.  We sipped creamy hazelnut cappuccinos, feasted on Roman delicacies and walked until our feet throbbed with the effort of exploration.

It was after a long morning of just such wandering and discovery that we stumbled upon a local market tucked into the confines of an ancient square.  We had already taken in the famous market at the Campo dei Fiori, with its bags of tri-color pasta and tiny, kitschy flasks of limoncello, but this was something entirely different.  There were no signs to directs us, no unending streams of tourists to follow blindly - just empty, sun-tinted alleys and, suddenly, a colorful burst of life.

The square reeked with the presence of a fishmonger and rang with the back-and-forth, sing-song patois of commerce.  Wizened men, wrapped round in canvas aprons, stood behind haphazard pyramids of produce affecting nonchalance, but every now and then tenderly catching up a piece of fruit to polish it in an apron corner.  Housewives gossiped and laughed under the awnings, still possessed of that uniquely Roman, stately self awareness, even in their daily errands.  Bathed in the sort of ochre sunlight that one always imagines to be shining on Italy, the scene was awash with color and, for a moment, we felt as though we had stumbled upon a movie set or a secret society hidden in the labyrinthine backstreets of Rome.

We walked the narrow furrows between the grocers' carts, taking care not to brush the delicate piles of produce with a errant gesture or a careless elbow.  We purchased some dried dates from a barrel and a cluster of grapes wrapped in paper.  I found a few fat-looking figs and, envisioning fresh bread and a milk-white slab of rich goat cheese, purchased them for the next day's breakfast.

My canvas backpack was nearly full with a precious array of jewel-toned finds when I spotted the oranges.  Shielded imperfectly by the yellow awning stretched overhead, I was drawn to a bright blush of red where a few fruits caught the late afternoon sun.  At first I thought I was mistaken, tricked by the light, but a closer inspection proved they were real.  "Sanguigna," the man behind the cart smiled, proudly. Blood oranges.  And it really did look as though each orange had been wounded, touched with blood that shone wetly in the light.  I wanted to try one, but the weight of my backpack reminded me of our other treasures already purchased and the short time we would have to enjoy them before saying goodbye to Rome.  " Bellissimo," I smiled back at the grocer and left the oranges behind.

But not forgotten.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a familiar blush of red amongst the rounded shapes of oranges at the grocery store last week.  I'm not sure if they were a good price, but I knew I had to try one.  Matt has grown accustomed to my attraction to unusual foods and he readily agreed.  Of course, picking an orange from a bin at the local supermarket is not exactly like discovering one bathed in sunlight under the awning of an Italian grocer's cart, but such experiences are better had late than never at all.  To recreate my Roman experience I took the orange into the sun outside and decided to make a sensory experience of eating it.  I photographed it with a green silk scarf I bought on that long-ago trip to Rome and then found a spot on a sunlit bench to enjoy:

The skin is the color of a Mediterranean sunset, with bright oranges resolving into rich scarlet and dusky reds and browns.  Slightly less than round, the fruit is pleasantly heavy with the promise of the rich ruby flesh inside.  Lightly dimpled skin is firm and cool to the touch, yet yields easily to the knife which causes small, cold beads of blood-red juice to well up on the cut surface.

At first taste it's the sweetest orange, tangy and the slightest bit tart, but with a 'heavier' feel in the mouth.  The flavor seems more weighty and mature, as if a blood orange were just an adult version of the oranges we commonly eat.  Even the pith, usually inedible for me, is flavorful and delicious.  A few seconds pass and the tangy notes dissipate, leaving a round sweetness that I can only describe as berry-like.  Suddenly I taste raspberry lemonade and then I realize that what I am actually tasting is sangria, with it's dry, slightly acidic wine mingled with sugary fruit.  The flesh, too, smells of sangria - less astringent than the normal smell of oranges.  I am so caught up in the tasting and the long-awaited experience that soon this scent is all that remains of my orange, a sweet, clean smell on my fingertips.

It may have taken years for my first taste of this exotic winter fruit, but it was worth the wait.  Sadly, now that my orange is gone I have the urge to look up blood orange recipes and figure out ways to get more of this unusual, grown-up flavor.  I know I can use blood oranges anywhere that normal oranges are used, but I want recipes that showcase its unique flavor and magnificent color - do you know any?  Perhaps that's a question for the grocer in the market, next time I'm in Rome.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The License Plate Dictionary

When I was living in Germany, I spent a lot of time walking.  I mean, a lot.  For a whole year, I relied solely on public transportation and my own two feet.  It wasn't planned, but in retrospect, it allowed me to become familiar with the town, the culture and the people in a way that isn't possible unless you're moving at a pace slower than 4 mph.

I didn't have a car, but that didn't stop me looking at others' and I began to notice that a lot of German license plates spell out English words.  I soon developed a little game that made the miles fly by and, after a while, I took my point-and-shoot camera along.  Little by little, I put together my 'License Plate Dictionary' and even added entries from other countries, including Malta and Italy. Here are a few examples:

That's one provocative BMW

This Peugeot is even more forward! 

A boastful Audi

An unfortunate Ford

We had to go FAR for this one - all the way to Malta!
This is just a sampling of our collection - of course, I'm always eager to accept contributions from those of you living overseas. Happy hunting!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Krispy Kreme Brownies for Mardi Gras!

Doughnuts + Brownies = THE perfect Fat Tuesday recipe!

Observe the gorgeous chunk of doughnut buried inside that brownie!

Want to find out why? For a brief history lesson, round-the-world tour and one very delicious and indulgent recipe, keep reading....... 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Anthony Bourdain in Budget Travel - a favorite within a favorite!

I've already mentioned my love for Budget Travel magazine (I swear I'm not writing on commission, here), but I have another confession to make; I'm addicted to the Travel Channel's food programming.  I've been a fan of Anthony Bourdain's adventurous and often irreverent No Reservations for a while, but Adam Richman's epic Man v. Food and Andrew Zimmern's fascinating Bizarre Foods are new programs I've come to know and enjoy.  I'm always eager to learn more about food, travel and foreign cultures, so I think it's great that you can spend as much as three hours of the afternoon doing just that, under the unique and very individual tutelage of these three intrepid gents. Whoever thought of scheduling these shows back-to-back was a genius!

Lest you think I'm an absolute TV addict, I should also confess that Matt and I don't actually own a TV (shocking, I know).  Instead, I catch my favorite programs in the only place nearby that does - the gym.  I'm well aware of the irony of watching food shows while working out - it's especially funny to watch Adam Richman chow down a 72 oz. steak while I'm pounding down the miles on a treadmill - but I'm a competitive person so I reason that it's better to watch while working out than to watch while eating - I might just try to give Adam a run for his money!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Best of British: English Roast Potatoes

How do you turn a humble Idaho-grown spud into an international superstar?

...make him into traditional English roast potatoes!!!!!

Roast potatoes are as much an English institution as fish and chips or mutton and mint sauce, and possibly more beloved than either.  No Sunday roast would be complete without these starchy, golden pockets of crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside goodness.  As a child, I would look forward to Sunday afternoons that held the promise of flavorful, oven-roasted meats, roasted seasonal vegetables and, the pinnacle of perfection, roast potatoes or 'roasties' as they're affectionately known.  Sitting on the wooden pews of our drafty, stone church I would squirm with anticipation of the feast that awaited us when we returned home.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Recreating the Bamberg Onion

Once upon a time, while living in a lovely Bavarian hamlet called Bamberg, Matt and I went out for lunch at the famous Schlenkerla brewery and ordered an equally famous dish called the Bamberg Onion (or Bamberger Zwiebel, for the German-speakers out there). The brewery has been around since 1678, and is housed in a 15th Century, half-timbered building, part of which was once a Dominican monastery, arranged around a central courtyard.

The old Dominican chapel offers atmospheric seating (source)
In the biergarten behind the restaurant, guests cozied up to one another on wooden benches placed alongside communal tables. It’s a common Frankonian tradition and one that usually encourages conversation amongst even the strangest of strangers during the meal.  After scanning the crowded tables, we joined a trio of elderly men draining the last dregs from a round of beers and enjoying the late afternoon sun. There was barely time for the usual pleasantries before our conversation was interrupted and our attention stolen by the arrival of our food. In less than the time it took to down a tall glass of smoked beer – or Rauchbier, Schlenkerla’s signature beer-meets-beef-jerky-and-bacon flavored brew – our onions were brought out, steaming from the kitchen and swathed in sauerkraut and herb-studded mashed potatoes. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An Ode to the Old-Fashioned Recipe Book

Isn't there something wonderful about following a recipe? The way in which certain ingredients, when combined in a specific way, will produce the same dish, time and time again? Or the way in which a recipe can be handed down through generations so that a person living in America today can enjoy the same foods her great-grandparents once cooked in Eastern Europe or Italy or Mexico?

My current, over-stuffed recipe book
I enjoy reading recipes, especially old ones, and see them as much as a commentary on the times in which they were written as a way to make a meal.  It's interesting to see how ingredients and methods go in and out of fashion and how a simple recipe can capture something of the mood and motion of the culture that created it (think of all the canned and convenience-food recipes of the 50s and 60s, for example, or the Victory Garden staples of the 1940s).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Travel Tips: Solid Shampoo

Today's travel tip comes courtesy of a summer I spent backpacking in Africa several years ago.  I had been burned by past experiences with exploding/leaking/oozing shampoo bottles, so I sought out and purchased a solid shampoo bar for this lengthy trip.  Not only was I spared the worry of finding a mess in my backpack, but I also found it easier to use in 'unusual' bush showers and discovered that it could also double as a body bar or laundry soap in a pinch.

In these days of ever-increasing air travel restrictions, a solid shampoo can also save you time in airport security.  Many varieties last longer than their bottled brethren and, because of their minimal packaging, are easier on the environment.  Just be sure to keep your bar in a sealable soap dish and allow it to dry out between uses or you might end up with a soggy mess.

You can find several different varieties on or check out LUSH - a British-based, fresh, handmade and natural cosmetics company where I purchased the original solid shampoo that accompanied me to Africa.

NEWS FLASH! In checking out the LUSH website for this post, I discovered that they now make solid conditioner as well.  I haven't tried them but I can't wait to - one step closer to bottle-free, hassle-free travel!