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this is America

Last year, I spent the Fourth in Panama (yes, yes, I know that I owe you more chronicles…they are in the works, I promise).

This year, I was back on US soil and my friend Rachela and I drove out to Berkshires for the long weekend. It was a colorful weekend on so many levels, so please bear with me as I test out my new camera to capture it all. Our adventure started with berries plucked straight from the bushes. It ended with the most non-PC gentleman you could even imagine pointing us towards the nearest gas station. In between: farm animals, a swimming hole (yes, a swimming hole), the local Independence Day parade complete with the Chesterfield Chicken and the town mime, dance, fireworks and a long line of traffic, art, a lake, and the largest popovers I have ever seen.

And just when I thought I was a little out of my comfort zone, the Israeli photographer we shared breakfast with reminded me that “this is America.”

Remember those black raspberries? Did I tell you they were picked from the bushes behind our B&B? Or that when we met the proprietor his hands were stained from his collection? Or that they starred in the muffins that made up part of our multi-course breakfast? Or that I snagged the recipe to share with you? Yes, I may be slowing down on the recipe front, but this one is well worth the wait.

Black Raspberry Muffins

Generously shared by Denise at Seven Hearths. Makes 12 muffins. You will eat them all.

- 2 C flour

- 1 T baking powder

- 1/2 t salt

- 2/3 C sugar

- 1 egg, beaten

- 1/3 C sweet butter, melted

- 1/2 C milk, warm

- 1/2 C sour cream

- 1 1/2+ C black raspberries

Pre-heat oven to 400.

Mix. Mix all dry ingredients. Add remaining ingredients except fruit and stir until just blended. DO NOT OVERSTIR. Fold fruit in lightly.

Bake. Scoop batter in lined or greased muffin tins. Bake approximately 20 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack for 7-10 minutes and then remove.

Variation: you can substitute 1 1/2 C other fruit, but adjust the sugar (and other ingredients) accordingly:

Blackberry: 1 C sugar
Raspberry: 2/3 C sugar
Blueberry: 1/2 C sugar, 2 t lemon juice, 1 t grated lemon rind
Bing Cherry:  2/3 C sugar, 2 t grated lemon peel
Nectarine: 1/2 C sugar
Peach: 1/2 C sugar, 1 t vanilla

And it’s been a while since I shared some dance videos with you, so here are excerpts from the performance we saw.

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city solitude

In the busiest of cities (at least of those in which I’ve lived), in my old old neighborhood west of Broadway, a mere dozen blocks from my first real apartment that I lived in that first post-baccalaureate year, I sought sun-filled solace.

white and pink

Eating out every day, not knowing when I would return home to my own kitchen.

purple

A few hundred feet from the Hudson, I found respite and quiet on a patch of grass hidden behind a manicured wildflower garden protected by wire fence.

sun beam

yellow

Eating out every day, not knowing when I would return home to my own kitchen. A few hundred feet from the Hudson, I found respite and quiet in a patch of grass hidden behind

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photo by Barry Munger, downloaded from http://www.thehighline.org/galleries/images/tags/barry+munger

photo by Barry Munger, downloaded from http://www.thehighline.org/galleries/images/barry-munger

Last Monday (June 8, 2009), Section 1 of the NY High Line opened and my sister, RySq was asked to serve as one of the greeters for the ribbon-cutting event as a volunteer with the Friends of the High Line. This afforded my talented lil sis — a budding architect,  photographer, graphic and jewelry designer, and all-around talented creative person to take pictures of this historic event and to be a fly on the wall. She has been talking about this urban planning and landscaping project for years since we both moved to New York in 2004, she to start her architecture career, I to continue in health care. So when her interest came full circle, I was so proud.

bench detail, photo by RySq

bench detail, photo by RySq

Ry shared over 200 frames and summarized her own thoughts on opening day in an email to friends and family (she rarely uses caps):

only the first phase [of the high line] has opened from gaansevort to 20th street. there are so many interesting moments … it really was  a treat to get up there and see it under construction the last few months and meet the founders of the organization. very inspiring that people can work together to make a difference in their community like this. the high line has truly transformed the entire far west side of chelsea for the better i think.

Ry heard Mayor Bloomberg speak with the press, and Diane von Furstenburg, an early supporter of the High Line with her flagship studio in the Meatpacking District, echoed a sentiment from a 2-minute video (where she described the High Line as “a green ribbon that follows the river into the sunset”), “‘the High Line is like a green ribbon running through the city… and I like ribbons … therefore I like the HighLine…‘”

DvF studio as seen from the High Line (picture by RySq)

DvF studio as seen from the High Line, photo by RySq

In looking through some other “High Line Stories” to be broadcast by the Sundance Channel, I found one featuring Adam Gopnik, New Yorker writer and author of one of the first books that I read about an American in Paris, an essay collection called Paris to the Moon about his 5-year sojourn in Paris. In his 2-minute vignette, he shares his thoughts about the High Line after having written an article about it in 2001:

‘It’s a sort of classic romantic subject: the ruins of industry,’ I thought as I say that it was a documentary of something passing. I did not imagine that it was really the foundation of something new. It seemed about as improbable a notion as anything could be that they would actually turn it into a park like the Promenade Plantée in Paris which is exactly like what this will become. And that is it’s an old abandoned railroad that had been turned into a long skinny high park. So when I wrote that piece, the effect was what had seemed to be merely a quixotic scheme suddenly seemed like a sane, rational, and necessary piece of urban planning. What were needed were new green lungs for the city to breathe with.

Sundeck, photo by RySq

Sundeck, photo by RySq

"Pavement Meets Horticulture" - photo by RySq

Pavement Meets Horticulture, photo by RySq

On the High Line website, there are numerous galleries of photographs, including this one of the “High Line in Operation” with black and white photos such as this one of a train chugging along the West side of lower Manhattan.

One of these iconic photos has even been incorporated into an Anya Hindmarch tote as part of the High Line Merchandise Program, whereby local designers including DvF, Trina Turk, and Zero + Maria Cornejo (who created a gorgeous abstract loop scarf) designed commemorative products, some proceeds of which support the High Line.

Anya Hindmarch tote

Anya Hindmarch tote

When Ry gets excited about something, her enthusiasm is infectious. And I often try to learn about what is inspiring her (like when I took a class on Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Architecture to round out my Freshman year pre-med load to give us a common lexicon), of course, adding in my own special touch. So when my sister introduced me to the High Line a few years ago, I became interested in “NY Export: Opus Jazz the film” – a film of a Jerome Robbins ballet, NY Export: Opus Jazz (that originally premiered in 1958 and was more jazz dance than ballet, often referred to as “an urban ballet in sneakers”), performed by NYCB dancers in locations all over NYC, including on the last untouched area of the High Line.

Opus Jazz 2

Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall in "Passage for Two," photo by Yaniv Shulman (downloaded from earlier version of http://www.opusjazz.com, no longer available)

Opus Jazz

Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall in "Passage for Two," photo by Yaniv Shulman (downloaded from earlier version of http://www.opusjazz.com, no longer available)

The trailer for the documentary compares the original ballet, placing it in 1950s context when it aired on the Ed Sullivan show, with its modern adaptation and reinterpretation , and contains commentary by some of the original and current performers. The contrast of the same moves and lifts then and now is breath-taking against the Robert Prince music and urban backdrops, old and new.

Trailer: Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz The Film

The behind-the-scenes video provides additional footage of the shooting of the film on the High Line, including capturing a scene in the last moment of sunlight of the day against the setting sun with the coming together of the art, luck, and skill that is film-making.

Behind the Scenes: Opus Jazz The Film

My sister ended her email with some closing thoughts.

the motto:

keep it simple
keep it wild
keep it clean
keep it slow

it is a passive park, designed via competition winner diller+scofidio… one of my favorite experimental  and visionary firms in the city

"Keep it Wild" - photo by RySq

Keep It Wild, photo by RySq

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seal the deal

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

Over Memorial Day weekend, my friend Tammie and I went to New York for the long weekend. After catching Matthew Broderick in The Philanthropist on Broadway (poor reviews in the NYT, but I enjoyed the banter, character development, and word play), eating at Clubhouse Cafe (buffalo burger with chipotle; simple steak frites; chocolate tart) that shares its butcher with Le Marais across the street, we headed downtown to meet up with some of my friends from my UWS days.

When winding down at around 5 am (take that, Boston!) after zipping from East Village to Meat Packing back to East Village in Sharon’s car (so rare in the city!), my friend Neima introduced the phrase “seal the deal” to so perfectly capture how I often feel — the need to eat a little tiny sweet, even if it’s just a spot of tea to finish off a meal. We ended the evening by toasting with little Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

sealing the deal with Neima

This became the theme of the weekend. The next morning after brunch (with Romy too), Tammie, Yoni, Thierry, and I dropped by Magnolia Bakery on the Upper West Side for a little more sweetness.

-023 crop square

"Wouldn't life be sweeter if cupcakes grew on trees? Until then we can help..."

"Wouldn't life be sweeter if cupcakes grew on trees? Until then we can help..."

After a little retail therapy downtown, I headed to Brooklyn with Meira to help out our friend, Ellie, aka, The Baking Architect, whom you’ve  briefly met with her “Persian Delights” mishloach manot for Purim and her too-fussy-for-me “Irish” butter cookies, with a charity event. She and her sister Yali have been raising money for Yad Eliezer‘s Kol Kallah (translation: “voice of the bride”) program for several years – a fund that assists newly married couples in Jerusalem in establishing their new homes.

So, on the Sunday of Memorial Day, when many people were relaxing by their newly opened pools, or going to barbecues, or checking out the sales (um, guilty, in the morning), Ellie was rushing around the newly built home of her friend Suri, and organizing the cake and table decorating sessions that her sister, Yali, and 2 of their friends, Shevi and Miriam were giving

When Meira and I arrived at 6:30 to help set up for the 8 pm event, the buffet table was already set and there was almost nothing left to be done. Ellie had done it all.

-040 sharp

Throughout the evening, there were four concurrent sessions, but since Meira and I, as the two B-school grads took it upon ourselves to oversee the Chinese auction (I felt a little bit like a booth babe), and we took our jobs seriously, we only allowed ourselves to attend one session. Given that I know Ellie as an architect, art historian, and designer by profession, and the Baking Architect by avocation…

Amaretto Petit Fours by The Baking Architect, ellie.levi@gmail.com, 347.922.8956

Amaretto Petits Fours by The Baking Architect, ellie.levi@gmail.com, 347.922.8956

… and that I had been drooling over her confections up for auction the entire evening …

Cheesecake with Lemon Curd, decorated with fondant sunflowers

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Lemon Curd, decorated with fondant sunflowers

The Baking Architecht's Triple chocolate cheesecake, decorated with crystallized pansies

The Baking Architect's Triple Chocolate Cheesecake, decorated with crystallized pansies

… I had to go to her 15-minute session:

How to Decorate Cheesecake

How to Decorate a Cheesecake (specifically, Crystallizing Pansies)

I attended Ellie’s session and am summarizing her tips for decorating a cheesecake, including very clear instructions on how to crystallize pansies that she adapted from Martha Stewart Living Magazine (this is the closest I could find online).

One of the problems in baking a cheesecake is that they often crack and fall after you take the out of the oven. Ellie talked about turning this problem into an opportunity, for example filling the crater with lemon curd, a strawberry sauce, or a chocolate ganache. She discussed making or purchasing fondant, coloring and rolling it out, and then cutting it into little flowers or other shapes to decorate cakes or petits fours in a very uniform way. One downside to fondant is that it can be expensive to buy all of the specialized equipment.

Crystallizing pansies can be done with with minimal investment, is a unique and very showy way to decorate desserts and while a bit time-consuming, you don’t need many to make a bold statement. In addition, you can store them for a long time (Ellie showed us some she had from a previous year!).

pansies, including some from a year ago

crystallized pansies, including some from a year ago

Supplies for crystallizing pansies:

- Pansy plant with firm petals

- 2 new small paint brushes with soft bristles

- 1/2 c superfine sugar (if you don’t have superfine sugar, you can make some by pulsing granulated sugar in the food processor until it is the consistency of a very fine grain – the key here is that you want the sugar crystals to be all the same size [to the naked eye…no science here] Over-process and you’ll get powdered sugar. Under-process and you’ll get non-uniform crystals that are too big)

- 1 egg white diluted with 1 t water

- wax paper

Pansies are technically edible in the sense that when they are not sprayed with pesticides, you can eat them. Apparently they taste like grass (I refrained from tasting). Since they have not been sprayed, of course, you do want to check carefully for bugs, especially under the overlapping petals and leaves. To guarantee that no pesticides are used, you could probably grow your own.

Prepare the flower: Cut a pansy flower from the plant as close to the stem as possible while keeping petals intact and check for bugs. Use one brush to clean off any dust or dirt on the pansy petals.

Prepare egg wash: Mix water with egg white in a cup.

Paint the flower: Dip the other paint brush in the egg white mixture and cover the back of the pansy flower. Quickly sprinkle superfine sugar onto pansy by rubbing crystals between fingers over the flower. Repeat process on the front of the pansy, being careful to cover overlapping petals. Do this one flower at the time. You can use tweezers as directed by Martha, but Ellie said that eventually this gets in the way and it’s easier and quicker to just use your fingers. DO NOT be tempted to just dip the flower into the sugar — this will result in a very thick coating and will not yield a pretty, glittery flower. Ellie made one flower, while speaking, in less than 3 minutes.

Dry the flower: Set pansies on wax paper and allow to dry about eight hours. Pansies will turn brittle when dried, and can crack, so be sure the do not stick to the wax paper when drying by shifting their position after 10 minutes, and then after another hour or so. You may have to add more sugar to wet areas.

Storage: Crystallized pansies should last for one year, stored in between layers of bubble wrap of wax paper in a container stored in a dry, cool place.

pansy in hand

***

If you are interested in learning more about Yad Eliezer’s Kol Kallah fund, or would like any of these other recipes, including some great parve (non-dairy) cheesecake bites (recipe by Chaya Unger) or the amaretto petits fours pictured above, or these fabulous cheesecakes, contact The Baking Architect at Ellie.Levi@gmail.com or 347.922.8956.

Recipes for "big spenders" at Kol Kallah charity event

Recipes for "big donors" at Kol Kallah charity event

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

The Baking Architect's Cheesecake with Blueberry Cream, decorated with crystallized pansies

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gils-picture

photo by Gil R., desserts by Andrew

You know you’re going to an Israeli event when the invitation states:

If you do attend, you’ll need a valid ID with you, no extra bags will be allowed nor weapons.

And there was nowhere else I wanted to be last night but surrounded by Israelis when the sun was setting and Yom HaZikaron — Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror — bled  into Yom HaAtzmaut — Independence Day. No strangers to symbolism, Israel starts Yom HaZikaron with a 2 minute siren and the country stops and stands in silence. It knows that its birth and continued existence are owed to the soldiers who protect its citizens, those who have been lost to terror attacks, and those who continue to be missing in action or in captivity. In a land of mandatory conscription, no one needs a reminder of this connection.

But you get a group of Israelis in a room and about the only thing (besides that um, interesting Maxim women of the IDF PR attempt by the Israeli government which in my opinion was creative though clearly a bit unbalanced) that can get their attention before the speakers begin is a video on a big screen that sounds something like Stomp (a personal favorite, given my previous tap dancing percussive days).

Starring Shekatek and created for Israel’s 60th Birthday last year; shows some of the best of Israel – its agriculture, technology (especially the biotech that I love!), cultural diversity, the beach, powerful women, tall dark men, all those religions, the serenity, the street culture and foods, the diversity, the beach (oh, did I mention that already?)

Nadav Tamir, Consul General of Israel to New England, then spoke, followed by Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Coakley. The themes of their comments focused on friendship and partnership between the US and Israel, the importance of Israel as a strong democracy, and Israel as a country of high tech innovation (with Coakley citing statistics such as Israel having one of the highest per-capita rates of patents and companies on the NASDAQ). I was also personally touched by Coakley’s mention of Israel’s significant work in the area of  family violence given that my last visit centered on some of these issues.

flowers for Yom HaAtzmaut

Full of Israeli pride, I decided to make a dish from my new favorite cookbook with the “burnt eggplant” technique that Janna Gur demonstrated in her class and that I have mastered over the past few weeks. Gur said that her mother used to call this dish “the reds and the blues” because of the tomatoes juxtaposed against the eggplants. Eggplants are called chatzilim in Hebrew and are ubiquitous in the country. When rationing was in effect during the early years of statehood, newspapers and radio gave advice on making the most out of available food, and eggplant recipes abounded, yielding a mock chopped liver that most of my NY friends won’t have a Central Park picnic without. Traditional chatzilim salad adds some garlic, oil or mayo, and lemon juice. I like Gur’s milder tomato addition. Need I point out the symbolism of the red tomatoes and one of Israel’s (“blue”) national dishes, paired together like the the flags? Probably not, but subtlety has never been my forté.

033e

Yom HaAtzmaut Chatzilim, or “the Reds and the Blues”

chatzilim on toast

Adapted from Janna Gur’s The Book of New Israeli Food and dedicated to Israel and the US’s continued strong relationship, a safe return for soldiers in captivity, and fewer new things for all sides to have to remember.

I “burn” the eggplants in my oven since I do not have a gas stove — make sure to prick the eggplants a few times so that they do not explode. The main adaptation I made to Gur’s recipe is that I leave out the garlic and add both onion and tomatoes. I also significantly reduced the amount of oil.

When buying (standard) eggplants like the one on the upper left, they should be dark purple, unblemished, and should feel light for their size. Store them in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3-4 C of salad/dip.

- 2 medium eggplants (or 4-5 slender Thai eggplants)

- 2 tomatoes (to get ~ 1 C grated)

- 1/4 onion (will  use ~1 T grated)

- 2 T vegetable oil

- Salt and pepper (to taste)

Preheat your broiler.

Prick skin of eggplants with a fork or knife to prevent an explosion all over your oven. Place eggplants on a foil-lined baking sheet just below broiler and check on them every 10 minutes or so, turning them as necessary. The thinner Thai eggplants took about 20-25 minutes and were ready when they turn brown and dry.

One Thai eggplant ready after 20 minutes

The larger eggplant took about 25-30 minutes and you can tell that it is ready when the skin gets thin and papery, turns black in some places, and the eggplant softens and releases juices.

While the eggplants are broiling, prepare the other ingredients. Grate the two tomatoes on the medium sized holes of a box grater – this should yield about 1 cup of  tomato pulp and seeds without skin. Grate a quarter of an onion on the same side of the grater to get a pretty fine (without much work) onion liquid and paste-type consistency. There will be some onion left over — use it in guac or anywhere you like raw onion for a slightly milder flavor, or just use it in place of cooked minced onion. burnt eggplant, grated onion, grated tomato

Allow eggplants to cool – at least 10 minutes. Once cool, you can very easily separate the skins from the flesh.

eggplant flesh removed from skins

Mash the eggplant with a fork or put into a food processor. My preference is a fork. Drain any extra liquid so that the final salad isn’t too watery. Add the grated tomatoes (try to get mainly pulp and less liquid), 1 T grated onion, a few generous pinches of salt and some serious grinds of pepper, and stir everything together. Add 2T oil last.

I love spreading this on toast, or setting atop a plate of greens.

Romanian-style Roasted Eggplant Salad

Am Yisrael Chai! The People of Israel live (and prosper peacefully)!

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springtime in manhattan

I was back in New York for less than 24 hours this week.

I was there for the annual reception that the non-profit on whose advisory board I sit has been holding for the past two years to honor community leaders’ work in ending family violence. Before heading home the next day, I wandered around my old haunts and in addition to the weather, about 20° F warmer than in Boston, there were some of the familiar tell-tale signs that Spring is hitting Manhattan.

First, the construction. I’m not talking about the UES falling cranes-type of construction to erect yet another east-of Lex monolith cookie-cutter apartment building that had the Times proclaiming the Fifth Mad Park once tony neighborhood one of the cheapest places to live (ahem…Yorkville anyone?). That, I’ve never had the patience for.  But, there is something strangely soothing about the life that “MEN AT WORK” orange signs, on-the-ground, public works construction lends to a city. The idea of renewal. Spring cleaning all around. Paving the roads after a long winter that someone had decided is over.Fixing the potholes.  Do you hear that, Boston? I repeat, Manhattan is fixing its potholes!

Then there are the flowers, struggling in their little urban gardens. Granted, I didn’t make it to Central Park where the trees blossom around the reservoir just a few weeks after cherry blossoms grace Washington, DC. But I did spy a few little blooms peeking out from their 2X3-foot cell on the sidewalk near the parked cars.

first spring blossoms in NYC urban garden

But, the true sign of Spring for me in Manhattan is when the fruit (and vegetable) guys return.

corner fruit (and vegetable) stand

Adorning (or shall I say staking their claim on) nearly every corner in my neighborhood and across much of Manhattan are fruit vendors. Some sell vegetables, like this guy above, but it’s the fruit that I’m after. Nothing fancy. Not much organic. No farmers’ market here. This is just how I would pick up some fresh fuit almost every day on my way home from work. Everything in the City is about convenience, so sometimes I would take a different train so that I would make sure to pass Rana, my fruit guy on my corner, because once I passed my apartment, I wouldn’t go back out to just grab some fruit. Rana knew I was loyal — I only went to the guy across the street when he was out of something I needed — so, sometimes he’d spot me an avocado or two on Saturdays on my way back from synagogue because he knew I didn’t carry money on the sabbath. I was always sad when Rana and the other fruit guys packed up when the temperature dropped, but like clockwork, they always returned with the sunshine.

corner fruit stand, extra inventory in the car

extra inventory in the car

One more image that I can’t resist sharing. Two gentlemen in Highland dress (not quite complete or formal, but a version of Highland dress nonetheless) also enjoying the Spring weather.

Highland dress

On the T back in Boston, I saw a man dressed like a yellow cow, or a “cowpie” to be exact, on his way to attend a Bruins (hockey?) game. He wouldn’t let me take his picture. But he wasn’t showing any leg.

Manhattan 1. Boston 0.

But who’s keeping score?

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Last night I meet a new friend, Katie, for drinks at Garden at the Cellar on Mass Ave between Central and Harvard Squares. We were given a wine menu, but I immediately flipped the menu over to search for cocktails. Two immediately caught my eye, and with my penchant for fresh herbs, I’m sure you can guess which I ordered.

Garden at the Cellar - Cocktail Menu

The bartender, Heather, was nice and friendly, without being overbearing. You could tell that she really enjoyed her work and created the unique concoctions that I was so excited to imbibe. 

Heather, ready with a smile and a drink

Heather, ready with smile and drink

Heather explained that the Lavender Cosmo is a simple syrup *infused with lavender* (sound familiar?), vodka, in this case, Svedka, a dash of cranberry juice, and a sprinkling of dried lavender. Shake, drain, and pour into a chilled glass. She was kind enough to make a little extra for Katie to try.

Lavender Cosmo - Garden at the Cellar

Unlike most cosmos, this one is not too sweet. It’s like the “Sex and the City” ladies all grown up, maybe moved to Cantabrigia. A little more sophistocated, a little more intellectual. No more Peter Pan syndrome. We’re ready for real life here, but with a hint of Paris …well, maybe Provence. One can only take a SATC analogy so far.

My one critique of the Lavender Cosmo is that while absolutely beautiful, the lavender buds are difficult to drink around and I did find myself having to … how can I say this delicately?… dispose of them in my napkin. I guess, like high heels, sometime aesthetics win over practicality. Even in Boston and Cambridge with all those cobblestones, I usually just walk on the paved streets (no Manolos, but some pretty rocking heels nonetheless) and avoid the cars driving by…

Katie soon enough ordered the Basil Lemon Drop. Fresh basil leaves (when available, which they were in this  gastropub adorned by an edible potted garden) were muddled before us into a simple syrup (or otherwise would have been infused into simple syrup, as with the lavender), shaken with Stoli and lemon juice, and then poured into a glass whose rim was dipped in a mix of sugar and minced basil. The drink was then further garnished with a slice of lemon and a sprig of basil flower. And not the flower of just any basil plant. The flower of a Thai basil plant. Thai basil is purple. And so are its flowers. (By comparison, my own large leaf Italian basil plant has white flowers.)

Basil Lemon Drop - Garden at the Cellar

Stunning as my (Philadelphia) Bubbie would say.

Again, Heather poured a little extra into a small glass for me to try (probably since I was snapping so many pictures!). This green and purple beauty was a little sweeter than the Lavender Cosmo, given its sugared rim, but still not overwhelmingly sweet like you might expect from the lemon drop shot that its name suggests. I’d call this drink the ultimate in sophistication … this one is Paris, sitting outside a bistro at 10 pm in November under the heating lamps and canopy as it gently rains outside and friends, new and old, keep dropping by to say hello.

I had to run off to a fundraiser, but Katie promised to let me know what  food she ordered and whether it lived up to the high expectations set by our drinks.

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friday afternoon lunch

I almost always forget to each lunch on Fridays, especially in the winter. From October to March, sunset is early, days are short, and I usually need to leave work at some embarrassingly early hour to get home in time for shabbat. But we just turned the clocks back and sunset is at a gloriously perfect 6:30 (give or take) up here in the north. I even spotted the first few flowers pushing their way through the softening ground on our one day of warmth and sunshine between the big storm and the little storm.

first flowers of spring

I picked up a grapefruit a week ago to pay homage to snowbird Bubbie whose Miami apartment my mother inherited and my parents were visiting to begin renovations. Bubbie used to begin each of our Miami meals with a half pink grapefruit. But mine has been sitting in my fruit bowl uninspired. Until today when my avocados finally ripened. So I gathered some ingredients for my much needed salad because I might not get any other veggies for the rest of the day.

arugula grapefruit avocado ingredients

See, I’m going to a Friends of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) dinner tonight. These things can be fun, but I like good food. And on that front, catered dinners (and I use that term loosely) can be very hit or miss. This has nothing to do with the sponsoring organization — it’s just what happens when you cook for a lot of people. Here in Cambridge/Boston, unless it’s Andrew’s (no endorsement — I don’t even know the guy, but his reputation precedes him), a large shabbat dinner can usually guarantee some form of chicken, maybe some meat, and that’s about it. Fresh fruits and vegetables, highly unlikely. A salad that’s more than iceberg and a bottled dressing, unlikely too. And, I’m sorry Jewish world, but potato kugel does NOT count as a vegetable. Starch maybe, but vegetable, no.

Needless to day, I needed to get my veggies on. And I had a bit of time to wait before shabbat dinner at a winter-hopefully-almost-over  probably-only-one-more-little-storm-left flowers-soon-to-be-blooming long-awaited-spring little-birds-starting-to-chirp respectable 7:15 pm.

grapefruit avocado salad

Grapefruit Avocado Salad

Reminiscent of a salad I used to eat at Darna in NY. Also very good topped with grilled chicken. Dressing is very light as pink grapefruits are not very tart –  you can add some lemon juice for more acidity, especially if  you’re using spinach or mâche greens. Arugula has a spicy bite and normally works well with bold flavors, so its use here was a bit of an experiment but the combination with the mild dressing is quite nice.

Serves 1 person who likes grapefruit; to serve 2, just add extra greens and use the whole avocado

- 2-3 handfuls of arugula (spinach and mâche work great also, but dressing will need to be adjusted – consider adding lemon juice and regular balsamic)

- 1 pink grapefruit

- 1/2 avocado

- olive oil

- white balsamic vinegar (or cider vinegar)

- salt and pepper

Prepare grapefruit suprêmes. Cut off top and bottom of grapefruit to reveal flesh and then cut off remainder of skin so that no pith remains. Remove each grapefruit section over a bowl (to catch juices) by sliding a knife between membrane and flesh in toward the center and then up towards the outside. Repeat until you have removed all of the segments. Save the juice.

pink grapefruit supremes

pink grapefruit suprêmes

Make dressing (enough for two servings). Mix grapefruit juice (~1T) with 2-3T olive oil and 1T vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Dip a green in dressing to taste and adjust as necessary.

Tear greens and arrange on plate. Top with grapefruit suprêmes and coat with dressing. Allow to sit for ~10 minutes to soak up dressing.

Prepare avocado cubes and add last. Cut avocado in half. Score flesh through to skin in a cross-hatch pattern. Scoop flesh with a a large spoon on top of salad and serve immediately. If not using second half, refrigerate with pit to prevent browning.

avocado ready to be scooped

avocado ready to be scooped

Top salad with avocado and add additional dressing if necessary.

POST SCRIPT

The dinner was actually pretty good, as it was indeed catered by Andrew. Stuffed turkey breast I believe, asparagus and roasted potatoes. No kugel in sight. Fresh fruit and assorted mini cakes for dessert. Not bad.

And there were beautiful flowers (apparently donated by Sarah’s Garden in Newton — sarah@sarahsgarden.org, no website that I can find) on each table that were so colorful I thought they were fake (and made a comment to that effect…until I reached over to touch their soft petals and realized my mistake). I was one of the lucky ones who was able to bring a anemone bouquet home and it survived the arduous journey despite in brilliant form. I can’t resist sharing with you their splendor in one of my most favorite vibrant color combinations.

poppies 1

poppies 2

 

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of mice and men

Today is Purim, and I had elaborate plans to fulfill the mishloach manot mitzvah by baking Ashkenazi and Sephardi hamantashen, oznei haman, and fazuelos from around the globe to share with my friends and with you my new friends.

I did my background research. I looked into the history and my culinary options.

Ashkenazis make hamantashen, Haman’s pocket (since he accepted bribes) or Haman’s hat – a tri-corn like our Colonial “fathers” wore – filled with prune or poppy seed. The German word for poppy seeds is mohn, and Gil Marks in Olive Trees and Honey reports that the word’s similarity to Haman’s name is the genesis for this fillings. Prune — I have no idea where that comes from. Call them dried plums, but they’re still prunes  in my book. The few times I have actually made hamantashen, I used a cookie-like dough and filled them with chocolate and chopped hazelnuts.

Askenizim from different origins not surprisingly make different types of dough. There’s soft yeasty dough and more crispy cookie-type dough.  The former lets the filling shine. Apparently Poles and Hungarians tend to make the latter. And the French, bless them, sometimes make a brioche style dough (Faye Levy’s 1,000 Jewish Recipes).

To me, Sephardim are a bit more exotic – probably because I’m not Sephardic. Many Sephardim make oznei haman, Haman’s ears, as thin sheets of dough shaped in half circles and pinched in the middle, fried and covered with confectioners’ sugar, called  fazuelos (Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food),or, in Italian, orcchie di Amman (Joyce Goldstein’s Cucina Ebraica) — the name reminds me of orchiette, the ear shaped pasta. I had a really hard time picturing these until I came across step-by-step illustrations online.

And then come the nuts. Moroccans make Gorayebah – almond topped butter cookies (Joyce Goldstein’s Saffron Shores). Greeks make a lot of interesting food for Purim depending on which area of Greece  you are from – marzipan (called novies) in the shape of the Purim characters,  buns (called folares) in the shape of Haman’s foot, sesame bars (multiple names) seen to represent Haman’s fleas (hmmm…), walnut squares to represent Haman’s teeth, and almond pastries. I bought  Nicholas Stavroulakis’ Cookbook of the Jews of Greece in the Jewish Museum in Athens a few years ago.

I looked to my friend Ellie Levi, aka The Baking Architect, for inspiration and motivation. Like KH Krena’s valentines (exhibit I mentioned in” sticky fingers“) Ellie’s mishloach manot deserve their own art exhibit. Somewhat more perishable and difficult to store over the years, I dare you to resist their call for more than an afternoon.

One year, Ellie and her sister Yali cooked and baked according to a Persian theme, in accordance with the site of the Purim story.

Purim-themed mishloach manot: Images from a hand painted 13th century megillah from Persia (The Baking Architect)

Persia-themed mishloach manot: Images from a hand painted 13th century megillah from Persia (The Baking Architect)

... filled with lots of (Sephardic) Persian goodies...

... filled with lots of (Sephardic) Persian goodies...

... described in detail

... described in detail

I had the best of intentions. Really I did.

Eventually, I decided to throw all of my research to the wayside and make Ashkenazi-style hamantashen my way. Different from every past year — no chocolate — but with a flair that I could only call á la francais. I was going to make mini apple triangle galettes — little hand-shaped freeform pies filled with freshly sliced apples (no prunes here!), perhaps atop a slather of dolce de leche or luscious caramel, sprinked with some turbinado sugar. Voilà! The perfect new Zahavah tradition.

And then I ended up fulfilling one of the other Purim traditions — ad d’lo yada — a few days early. Nothing crazy, just enough that I didn’t feel like spending my day baking.

NOTE: In case someone was concerned, I did make sure to fulfill my mishloach manot obligation – thank you, Monica Hirsh, for delivering with care such a classy, beautiful gift of flowers and food  to my sister’s office and really making her day a special one. What is great about Monica, beyond her amazing aesthetic and what I found out later is our shared time in Cantabrigia, is her personalized service. I requested delivery confirmation, having never sent anything to my sister’s office, and received an email note later in the day that detailed the delivery (time, signed by) and felt like a communication from a friend or colleague. Such small details make such a big difference in the whole experience.

Purim Celebration shaloch manot by Monica Hirsh

Purim Celebration shaloch manot by Monica Hirsh

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My family once vacationed in Nice, my parents taking us kids along when they had a conference in the large convention center. We had fun, but I pretty much treated Nice as any other place to hang out. My sister and I actually went bowling. Bowling!

And we complained about the pebbly beach.

plage a Nice

I don’t think I fully appreciated the beauty and calm of this city until I spent several weeks there on my own. That’s when I met Gianin (non pensare, fare) and had an opportunity to really explore Nice, renting a flat in the Musicians’ Quarter, riding the bus every day like a local, and taking dance classes in Vieux Ville (Old Town).

Vieux Ville back alley (view from OffJazz top floor stairway window)

Vieux Ville back alley (view from OffJazz top floor stairway window)

One of my favorite parts of the day, dance classes notwithstanding, was relaxing after class. Sometimes I went out with fellow students and teachers (most notably the inseparable Dutch ladies whom I soon visited in den Haag) or took a quick dip in the Mediterranean. But usually I meandered back to my flat either along the waterfront or through the market.

Some days, this would take me hours — I was a true flâneur that summer in the best spirit of that word — one who experiences a city by strolling through its winding streets and alleyways, noticing the little nuances and habits and daily rituals and rhythms of life.

When I walked through the market, there was lavender everywhere. Soap. Perfume. Herbes de Provence in cute little ceramic pots. I had been cooking with lavender for a while, infusing it into a liquid – honey, milk, melted butter/margarine – to incorporate its essence into something I’m baking without making the end product taste like perfume. But now when I cook with lavender, and the sweet scent fills the air, I am reminded of my summer walks home through the market and other flânerie in Nice.

* * *

When I came home from New York this past weekend, I found almost a foot of snow outside.

Inside though, on my small windowsill herb garden, my lavender plant has started to bloom. It began shooting buds about 2 weeks ago, towering high above the fuzzy leaves below. And just this week, a few tiny delicate purple flowers have started to barely show their faces, peeking shyly out from their green sheaths.

lavender flower

You almost need to squint to see them. But they’re there.

lavender flower closeup

So it was time to bake another lavender cake.

Lavender tea cake

lavender tea cake, on a napkin I bought in Nice

Lavender Cake

Adapted from The Kosher Palate‘s Yellow Cake recipe. While some recipes call for grinding up dried lavender buds into a fine powder to give flavor to cakes, ice creams, etc., I find this gives a too heady a fragrance and taste. I prefer the infusion method that I have described below. This methodology can be incorporated into other recipes – just infuse the lavender into warming honey, milk, or shortening. I may try this with rosebuds as well.

I typically make this as 2 loaf cakes (like tea cakes) or 4 dozen small or 2 dozen large cupcakes; can also be made as a bundt cake; makes approximately 15 servings. I use a silicone loaf pan, and the cake develops a really nice, caramelized crust.

3 C all-purpose flour

2 C sugar

1 T baking powder

1/2  kosher salt

1/2 C vegetable oil

1/2 C margarine

1 C soy milk

4 large eggs

2 T dried lavender

zest of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease pan(s).

Prepare lavender infusion: melt margarine in bowl over low heat and add lavender. Heat until fragrant, approximately 7-10 minutes. Drain margarine through fine sieve, pressing lavender on mesh. Discard lavender. Allow margarine to cool (but should still be liquid).

Infusing lavender

infusing lavender

lavender in seive

margarine drained, lavender buds stay out of batter

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of mixer using paddle on low speed.

Add oil, cooled margarine, soy milk, eggs, and lemon zest. Beat at medium speed until well blended. Scape down sides of bowl occasionally to make sure all ingredients are incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and bake for 40-60 minutes, depending on size of pan. Cake is done when toothpick inserted into center comes out clean (no crumbs). I typically bake on the longer side because I like a crunchy crust.

Cool and serve.

Lavender tea cake

what remained after sharing with my neighbors

cupcakes

sometimes I make lavender cupcakes

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