BLUEBERRY ACAI CORNBREAD CAKES

25th February 2015

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Proud owner of both a KALE sweatshirt and an “Oh Kale Yeah” tote bag, it’s clear that I like vegetables (but not just kale as my wardrobe might suggest). Case in point, I’m currently writing this post with a half-empty bag of shredded purple cabbage at my side. But I’m not going to pretend that I never go a whole day without eating something green (although I do feel horribly guilty about it when I do) or that I don’t suffer through the same struggle as everybody else come Girl Scout Cookie Season. From an early age, my parents said they’d find me tottering back from our neighbor’s garden with a head of already nibbled on cabbage or eating bell peppers like apples. But then there are the vegetables that I absolutely detest or times when I can’t be bothered to eat anything that grew in the ground, so I treat myself like a toddler – one that didn’t necessarily like her fruits and vegetables – and I hide things in my food. People accuse me of trying to be tricky – is this a freaking piece of ZUCCHINI in my chili?! – claiming that they need not be duped. To be fair, I sneak things into my own food, too, and it’s a point of pride that I am able to fool myself.

Since I can’t be that weirdo that just eats kale salads all the time, most of my food gets this sneaky treatment: I put turmeric in everything savory, cinnamon in all things sweet, pureed spinach in soups and sauces, zucchini in my chili, and I firmly believe that it’s not an apple a day that keeps the doctor away, but a handful of berries. Even when those berries aren’t in season – like right now – you’ve got to get them somehow. Enter Acai Roots and their plethora of acai berry products.

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When I can’t get fresh berries, I make my own puree out of frozen ones or crush the dehydrated version into a fine powder to mix into smoothies, oatmeal, and various baked goods. I’ve been stuck with the run-of-the-mill berries – your strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries – but was recently introduced to Acai Roots and their acai berry powder. Also known as the super berry thanks to its ridiculously high antioxidant count and impressive nutritional stat sheet.

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While the acai berry shines best in equally healthy recipes – like a good ol’ kale smoothie – sometimes you just can’t stomach another stupid kale leaf. Good thing this stuff works just as well in not-so healthy recipes, like this Blueberry Acai Cornbread Cake. I could give you a thousand excuses for why this breakfast cake is good for you – blueberries are fruit, cornmeal adds fiber, milk and eggs equal protein – but let’s be honest, the acai berry really carries its weight (and then some) in this recipe.

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When mixed with the blueberries, the acai powder creates a lovely marble in the cornbread batter, making this cake look much more decadent than it really is. Sneaky sneaky acai berry.

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Along with a love for fruits and vegetables – and the tricks for rendering them inconspicuous in other dishes – my parents taught me to always tend to a sick friend or neighbor with something homemade from the kitchen. While most people bring something like soup, thick with body curing chicken fat and fragrant garlic, or something a bit healthier like a giant bowl of salad as my good friend Nan always does, I’m more of a baked good girl. So my get-well-soons need to employ a bit of this sneaky ingredient stashing.

The recipe for this cake makes two loaves, one for you and one for a friend in need. If you want to be completely honest, you can bundle it up with a bit of twine and a little jar of additional acai berry powder so they can continue to get well long after the cake is reduced to crumbs.

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Blueberry Acai Cornbread Cakes
makes two small loaves

1 cup blueberries (if frozen, set out to thaw)
1-2 heaping tablespoon acai powder
3/4 cup sugar (or honey)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, melted (or coconut oil)
2 eggs
1 cup milk (could use coconut milk)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1. In a small saucepan, combine the blueberries, acai powder, 1/2 cup sugar, and the lemon juice. Simmer over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture has thickened and sticks to the back of a spoon. Using the back of a spoon or the tines of a fork, mash the blueberries. Set aside.

2. Set the oven to 350 degrees and line two small loaf pans with parchment paper.

3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and sugar.

4. In smaller bowl, combine the melted butter, eggs, milk and vanilla, whisking to combine. Make a well in the cornmeal mixture, add the liquids, and stir with a wooden spoon to combine.

5. Divide the batter between the two small loaf pans – tapping the pans on the counter to remove any air bubbles. Spoon dollops of the blueberry-acai mixture on top of each loaf. Using the sharp end of a knife, swirl each dollop to create a marble effect. Place the pans into the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of one loaf comes out clean. Remove from oven and let the cakes cool in the pans. Best served warm with a bit of butter or additional fresh fruit and a cup of tea.

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WEEKLY SUNDRIES

22nd February 2015

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top row: the old firehouse, a berry basket of flowers from my local far, ain’t no party like a Paul Revere party; bottom row: premature packing for Iceland, box of ruby reds from the Rio Grande Valley, a pretty scene in the recent snowpocalypse.

sundries, n.

Pronunciation: /ˈsʌndrɪz/
Etymology: plural of sundry adj. used subst.: compare odds n.
Definition: Small articles of a miscellaneous kind; esp. small items lumped together in an account as not needing individual mention.

Though its definition can be a little misleading, I really enjoy the term sundries. It fits well within the Southern vernacular and seems to be a word that is slowly coming back into style. It has an assortment of applications and more or less means a collection of bits and pieces. Which is exactly what this post entails. Bits and pieces from around the world, web, and my frame of reference that I thought might be good to share. I’ve always been fond of little collections – stamps, vintage books, bottle caps, ticket stubs – this is just another one of many (albeit a much less cluttered curation). This week’s sundries are all fairly recent pieces of news, but sometimes an old standby might slip through. The term weekly is also subject to change because weekly is sometimes just too aspirational.


Evidently, we can’t get enough of this cold weather…so we’re going on an adventure to Iceland. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Boston and has magical things like fjords, volcanoes, glaciers, beautiful blond princesses, vikings, a beautifully bouncy language, and, of course, elves. We booked our tickets this weekend and reserved a darling little Airbnb in the heart of downtown that looks like something out of the perfectly detailed Ikea catalog. Our flat for the week has a full kitchen so I plan to take full advantage of what I can only imagine is an adorably stocked grocery store – I have a thing for foreign cereals, you see – and am also reading this investigation of Icelandic food by Food and Wine in preparation.

Back here in the states, I’m waiting to hear back from PhD programs for this coming fall. Just this week, I learned that I’ve been accepted into the American Studies program at the University of North Carolina where I’d be mentored by many great southern scholars including Marcie Cohen Ferris and my friend Elizabeth Engelhardt. Since I haven’t heard back from the other schools, I’m still waiting to make a final decision, but these lovely ladies are sure helping me make a lengthy list of pros in favor of North Carolina. Starting with an old program alum and member of the folksy duo Hiss Golden Messenger. They sound like front porches and cool glasses of iced tea and they sneak Eudora Welty quotes in their lyrics. Point, UNC.

Speaking of the South, I’m kind of smitten with this new tea called Cat Spring Tea that I found through work a couple weeks ago. It’s made of yaupon and is the original American tea – since it was consumed by local indigenous peoples long before those Brits brought over their Orange Pekoe. I haven’t had the chance to try it – plan to order a couple bags soon! – but I’m already a fan for their use of the local Texas plant species. Though, I may be a bit inclined to like it since the yaupon bush is the subject of a running joke in my family. According to my mother, whenever she asked my Texas wildlife and outdoor specialist father to identify a plant while out in the woods or driving through the countryside, he’s default answer was always yaupon. She came to believe that many varieties of yaupon existed throughout the state with many different kinds of berries, leaves, heights, and habitats, until she realized otherwise. Bless her heart.

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My new favorite long read is this nifty look at how the Tudors invented breakfast by BBC History. It combines all my favorite things: Britain, historical foodways, and breakfast. Also I learned a new wonderfully dramatic word for breakfast: jantaculum. Thank you, Tudors.

Last, but not least, I just remembered that this month is the Official Cheesecake Month – at least for me and my college roommate Keegan – and the time of year where I’d make us a new cheesecake (or two) each week. That girl loves her some cheesecake. Since we don’t live close by any more and since no one else in my house takes kindly to sweet cheese desserts, I don’t make too many cheesecakes these days. Then I stumbled upon this chocolate orange cheesecake from one of my favorite sites, The Vanilla Bean Blog. She paired the recipe with some Tolkien quotes. I think we could be best friends. I’m off to take a poll to see if anyone else will help me eat it.


Happy Sunday, y’all.

CHOCOLATE GRAVY + TEXAS VALENTINES

13th February 2015

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To say my family has a chocolate problem is an understatement. My Dad travels around the state for work frequently enough that he has an old steel ice chest that is always filled with his daily necessities including loose leaf gunpowder green tea, dried spearmint, his tea things, a bag of raw almonds, and at least five different kinds of chocolate. My stepmother keeps chocolate “hidden” in her glove compartment and is on a first name basis with the specialty chocolate maker downtown. When my grandmother and I were in England a couple years a go she bought a dozen different kinds of chocolate to bring back as presents, but when I got back from doing research at the library one afternoon nearly half of them were gone. My little sister’s stocking this past Christmas couldn’t hang from the fireplace mantel because it was filled to the brim with caramel-stuffed chocolate bars. When traveling on long distance road trips or just driving across town, my family literally stops to smell the chocolate at each and every chocolate, candy, cafe, bakery, and coffee shop there is. So when I say that my family has this very old recipe for something called Chocolate Gravy, you’ll have to understand why I never found that to be an odd thing.

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But I’ve since realized how odd Chocolate Gravy might sound to, well, anyone. The recipe – the particulars of which are highly debated within my extended family – dates back to at least my great grandmother and has since been changed here and there as it passed through the generations. Old cookbook research places Chocolate Gravy in one of two camps: a Mexican inspired mole kind of sauce or a dish born of frugal times hailing from Appalachia. The premise in either case is simple: a flour based sauce – known generally back home as a gravy – flavored with cocoa powder and sometimes real chocolate. The amount of sugar varies from cook to cook, but the application is always the same. A plate of hot, homemade biscuits.

Like many things from my home state, I never quite understood the appeal of this dish. Maybe because it makes a huge mess on the plate and I can’t abide my foods touching each other. Maybe because that much chocolate is more than my mind can handle so early in the morning. But I think most of all, it’s because I grew up with a kitchenful of elder family members huddled round the chocolate gravy pan saying appetizing phrases like “it’s good for growin’ gals” and “it’ll stick to yer ribs.

Why would I ever want chocolate-coated ribs, I thought as a precocious little food critic.

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Whatever I may feel about Chocolate Gravy, my family and many other people I know, rave about the stuff. If I had to bet, it’s probably on the Valentine’s Day breakfast menu back home at my parents house.

All this uncertainty about my family’s favorite recipe made me think about the other things I don’t really quite get about my home state. I started with the way we Texans talk – since that’s what sets me apart so much living up here in Massachusetts – which led to me and my husband making some rather colloquially specific Valentine’s cards that he’s handing out to all his Northern coworkers this week. Pulled from our own recollection of local speak and a little bit of internet research, we crafted a few of our favorite Texanisms into thematic cards perfect for friends and significant others.

Whether you’re a Texan or just like sending culturally cryptic snail mail, please feel free to use these valentines (you can click on them individually and download them to print). These lovely phrases are just too perfect to not share. While you’re cutting them out and signing them to friends, whip up a batch of my family’s chocolate gravy and have the true Texas Valentine’s Day experience.

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Chocolate Gravy + Biscuits

1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla
extra dark chocolate for garnish or fun an extra chocolate punch in the face (optional)
buttermilk or cat head biscuits

1. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the sugar, cocoa powder, and flour. Make a well in the mixture and add the milk, butter, and vanilla.

2. Pour the mixture into a small saucepan set over medium heat. Turn the heat up slightly to bring the mixture just to a boil. Turn the heat back down to medium-low, stirring the gravy until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Serve with hot biscuits.

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You’re as handy as hip pockets on a hog. Happy Valentine’s, y’all.

TEX-MEX BANH MI SANDWICHES

11th February 2015

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My grandfather is that guy who puts hot sauce on everything. Eggs, sandwiches, soups, potatoes, burgers, bbq, tacos (of course), pasta. Pretty much everything save pie. I don’t think he’s taken to carrying a personal bottle of the stuff with him everywhere, but that’s his next move for sure. Despite our similarities – same squinty eyes, same quick temper, same affinity for writing – I swore up and down that I’d never be one of those people who puts hot sauce on everything. Only card carrying members of the Grumpy Old Man club do that. Well…I do that too now. And, just like my grandfather, I don’t care what anyone thinks about it.

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For me, the hot sauce is a kind of alimentary connection to Texas. I put it on things – all the things – while living up here in the North and it keeps the homesickness (read: taco-disconnect) at bay. When there’s five foot of snow on the ground and stir-crazy cats staring out the window making your cabin fever all the more palpable, a little hot sauce goes a long way. I always hear people talk about the same old apres-snow shoveling foods: bowls of chowder or Italian style soups, maybe mac and cheese, or something warm and buttery. What everyone really needs is a healthy dose of hot sauce. And, like I’ve already explained, hot sauce goes on everything.

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My recent mid-winter favorite and hot sauce vessel is Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches. While these street-food-style sandwiches are already fairly spicy – they traditionally include jalapenos and other fiery sauces – I add Texas style spices and other south-of-the-border ingredients and therefore get to call mine Tex-Mex Banh Mi. Anything goes with a Banh Mi, as you will see with the other recipe variations from around the web, but I like to go for a thin layer of meat – in this case cumin-dusted grilled chicken – and several hefty helpings of fresh vegetables. Spicy, but fresh. The perfect (and slightly health conscious) post-snow shoveling/walking/playing food.

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Traditional Banh mi sandwiches call for pickled daikon radish, which I’ve swapped for spicier quick-pickled carrots and jalapeno peppers. I’ve also spiked the classic mayo in this recipe with a liberal dose of Cholula and cumin. The fishy sandwich sauce gets a bit of lime and I added freshly sliced jicama – a starchy tuber native to Mexico and a popular addition to many fresh vegetable dishes back home. The cilantro and the avocado were already Banh Mi staples. Now that I think about it, most everything on this sandwich – minus the French baguette and the salty fish sauce – would seem right at home on any Tex-Mex table. There’s a research paper in here somewhere.

Tex-Mex Banh Mi Sandwiches

FOR THE QUICK PICKLED CARROTS + PEPPERS:
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
crushed red pepper
2 carrots, julienned
1 to 2 jalapenos, sliced into thin rounds

Add the vinegars, water, salt, and crushed red pepper to a Mason jar, shaking to combine. Add the carrots and jalapenos, shaking again to disperse throughout the pickling liquid. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator overnight (or at least 8 hours).

FOR THE SPICY CUMIN MAYO:
1-2 tablespoons Cholula hot suace
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 cup mayonnaise

In a small bowl, mix together the hot sauce and the mayo. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

FOR THE SANDWICH SAUCE:
1 teaspoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
juice of half a lime
1 teaspoon soy sauce

In a small bowl, whisk together all the ingredients. Set aside.

FOR THE SANDWICHES:
soft baguette
spicy cumin mayo
avocado, mashed
cumin dusted grilled chicken, thinly sliced
quick pickled carrots and peppers
fresh cilantro
cucumber, julienned
jicama, julienned

Cut the baguette into sections then split lengthwise. Brush half of the bread with spicy-cumin mayo and the other half with mashed avocado. Layer one half of the bread with slices of chicken, quick pickled carrots and jalapeno peppers, and thinly sliced cucumber and jicama. Drizzle with the sandwich sauce and top with cilantro leaves. Top with the other bread halves and serve.

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A bottle of hot sauce a day, keeps the…no that’s a stupid idea.

CHOCOLATE PEAR CRUMBLE

6th February 2015

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When I write a recipe – be it for a work assignment or just for a post here on the blog – I often keep three people in mind. The first is my Mum, a decent cook in her own time, but she wasn’t very keen on following instructions. Looking back, this probably explains why her kitchen adventures were often more mess than meal. The second is my Da, who has threatened to drop everything he’s doing and run away to culinary school on numerous occasions. He has an unbridled love for all things chocolate, prefers more order in his recipes, and likes to write thoughtful notes about steps or ingredients for future reference. He also has the most extensive collection of cast-iron cookware that I’ve ever seen and never turns down a chance to use it. Lastly, I think of a neighbor, not one person in particular, just someone who might theoretically live near by.

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Where the first two people help me remember my raisings, this last reminds me to live in the present and where I am now (both in terms of culture and whatever produce might be in season, i.e. never buy watermelon north of the Mason-Dixon). The first two provide the heritage and foundation for my recipes and remind me to think of multiple kinds of cooks when writing out the instructions. The neighbor – in my current situation that means a New Englander – helps me find the balance between sharing traditional southern dishes and using northern ingredients, methods, and mindset. One doesn’t just take a skillet-ful of crumble over to the new neighbors house, but the promise of a warm dessert is a welcome treat during a street-wide snow shoveling session.

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And that – along with several other internal and external and weather-permitting influences – is how this recipe for Chocolate Pear Crumble came about. A simple, all-American dessert made with red winter pears and topped with chocolate flavored crumble made rich with cocoa powder and cacao nibs.

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Another change in this Chocolate Pear Crumble is the lack of butter, a mutually agreed upon ingredient in both the north and the south, and its substitution with coconut oil. Where my Mum might furrow her brow, my Da might question it’s compatibility with cast-iron, and the neighbor probably couldn’t give a hoot, my own mind is wondering how the coconut oil might make a lighter, crispier crumble. And perhaps the subtle notes of coconut might work well with the similarly flavored cacao nibs and cocoa powder. If anything it might help the snowbound New England neighbor think of the warmer, sunnier places where coconuts actually grow. In any account, it works quite well.

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And here’s the best news of all, and I think all my influencers would agree, this crumble can be eaten for breakfast. Yes, breakfast. There isn’t too much sugar (when compared to all those pop tarts you eat anyways) since the rich red pears really carry all the sweetness you need. There’s oats, and spirit-warming chocolate, and coconut oil to protect you from the cold. Swap out the recommended vanilla bean ice cream for some yogurt (or don’t) and it’s the perfect thing for your morning coffee. After baking, take the crumble out of the oven, snuggle up with a blanket, and just eat breakfast right out of the skillet, letting the lasting heat of the cast-iron warm you up for the day ahead.

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Chocolate Pear Crumble
makes one 10-inch skillet

FOR THE CRUMBLE:
3/4 cup oats
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 big tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons cacao nibs
pinch of salt
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
pinch of nutmeg
3 tablespoons coconut oil, solid (you can put the oil in the fridge to make it solid)

FOR THE FILLING:
2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 heaping spoons of flour
3 large pears, cored and thinly sliced
pinch of nutmeg

1. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the oats, sugars, flour, cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, salt, and spices. Using two forks or a pastry cutter, work the solid coconut oil into the oat-mixture until crumbly and resembles coarse granola (this is the same method you’d use to mix butter into a flour-mixture, but try not to handle the coconut oil too much as it melts more quickly). Set aside.

2. Set the oven to 350 degrees.

3. Place a 10-inch oven-proof skillet over medium heat and add the coconut oil. Once the oil has melted, add the sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice, stirring until the sugar dissolves.

4. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture while continuously stirring to create a little sweet roux. Add the pears slices and gently turn in to coat in the mixture. Grate fresh nutmeg over the pears.

5. Arrange the pears so they lay flat in the skillet and cover with the topping mixture. Bake in the middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until the pears are tender and the crumbly top starts to crisp. Serve warm with scoops of vanilla bean ice cream.

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Happy Friday, y’all.