Thursday, July 7, 2011

Books, movies and cheese

Ah, the lazy days are here, calling for easy food and pleasant entertainment. So today I offer a cheese recipe as well as reading and viewing recommendations.

My new favorite summer cheese is fromage blanc, an excellent base for the herbs now proliferating in my small garden. I use the recipe from Ricki Carroll's Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses; the only supplies necessary are a stovetop, a large pot (stainless steel), cheesecloth, a thermometer, 1 gallon of milk, and the fromage blanc starter available from Carroll's New England Cheese Making Supply Company. Heat the milk to 86F, add the starter, cover and let set at 72F for 12 hours (overnight). The next morning, line a colander with the cheesecloth (or butter muslin), ladle the curd into the cloth, tie the corners into a knot, hang it to drain for 6-12 hours while you hang in the hammock and read.

Fromage blanc draining; hammock in background

The cheese will keep covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. While it is useful on its own in many recipes, such as those calling for ricotta or cream cheese, I like to add herbs from the garden and make a cheese spread inspired by a recipe in Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours

Fromage Blanc spread

2 c. fromage blanc
small shallot, minced
1-2 cloves of garlic, or 2 garlic scapes, minced
2 TB fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley, thyme, chives)
2 tsp red wine vinegar
2 TB extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix everything together in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. Spread on crackers or bread; also good in omelettes.

A terrific new foodie novel to take out to the hammock is The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry. This book was recommended to me by Amy at Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City last fall when I was picking up some books on Asperger's. Amy had read this debut novel and was impressed by it; her taste is impeccable, so I had her order it for me. The main character, Ginny, is a 26-year-old woman with Asperger's (undiagnosed until about halfway through the story) who is suddenly on her own after the accidental death of her parents. She comforts herself through cooking, and, in a bit of magical realism, discovers she can converse with ghosts of family members and friends who left behind their recipes. Ginny's kitchen is a place for various hues of alchemy, including one that ultimately enables her to begin her life as an independent adult.

McHenry, a food blogger, writes deftly about the transforming magic of cooking in a manner reminiscent of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. And while she claims no personal expertise on Asperger's, only research, McHenry is adept in presenting Ginny's story and challenges. This novel has certainly provided me with food for thought, as well as a few new recipes to try!

Now, for after dinner relaxation, I highly recommend Woody Allen's new film, Midnight in Paris. For those in Traverse City who haven't yet seen it, the State has it for another week. I've been twice and will probably go a third time. Owen Wilson is the most likeable actor ever to play the Allen persona, and the screenplay is perhaps Allen's most clever and witty in decades. If summer TV fare such as the Bachelorette is making your brain cells die, you can invite a few back by refreshing your cultural knowledge of the vibrant Parisian arts and literature scene of the 1920s. To foodies who want more of this era, check out the delightful little book Found Meals of the Lost Generation: Recipes and Ancedotes from 1920s Paris; my husband, who is a huge Hemingway fan, gave me that years ago and I had forgotten I had it until I saw the film. And an excellent recent novel set in this era is Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, which tells the story of Hemingway's first marriage from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley. It inspired me to decide that I now wish to celebrate my 50th birthday (still 2.5 years away) with a bike trip through France's Loire Valley.

Finally, I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors; her The Poisonwood Bible would probably be in my top five novels if I ever made such a list. The Lacuna is a bit of a departure in style for Kingsolver; most of the story is presented through fictional diaries and letters. The story unfolds languidly; a page-turner this is not. Two friends have told me they couldn't get through it and gave up; many reviews were also lukewarm. But a patient reader who takes in a little of this at a time (I read it over several weeks) will find much to delight and ponder. Kingsolver's prose is as rich as ever and her characters are compelling. Frida Kahlo is more flesh and blood in The Lacuna than she was in Salma Hayek's screen portrayal. I'll spare a complete recap here; for those interested, I link the New York Times review.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Red berries and other good stuff

With great excitement, I present my first home-grown raspberry:

Isn't it lovely? I'm sure there will be a few more, which is good, since my daughter has already eaten this one.

These raspberry shrubs join three strawberry plants and two currant bushes as my garden expansion for the 100 YARDen DASH -- a challenge that backyard gardeners in Marquette issued to their friends in Traverse City to convert more yard space to food production. Needless to say, Traverse City will not be victorious on my meager efforts, but Leah did enjoy the raspberry as much as the junk food she purchased this morning from the snack wagon now open at the neighborhood park.

Meanwhile, organic strawberries are still abundant at Oryana and the farmer's market, and strawberry farmer extraordinaire Sandee Ware tells me she'll probably have them for another week. I can barely close my freezer door as I've packed in at least a dozen quarts of strawberries, most of which are destined for winter smoothies, if they last that long. My son enjoys summer smoothies and has gone through at least a few quarts in the past week. So I keep capping and freezing.

Of the many delicious ways to eat strawberries, my favorite is one of the simplest. The recipe:

Sharon's Strawberry Heaven

Fresh, organic strawberries
Cream (Shetler's, for those in northern Michigan)

Cap and wash the strawberries. Whip the cream. Spread a little Nutella on the strawberry and dip it in the whipped cream. Enjoy!

If you're too lazy to whip cream, skip it and just spread on the Nutella; it will still be so delicious. However, whipped cream can be made in seconds with a powerful hand blender (I recommend adding the attachment set).

And allow me a brief comment on the Nutella. Some readers may be bewildered at my recommendation of a commercially processed food. In my defense, I'll simply point out that brilliant food writer Mort Rosenblum (remember how much I love him?) devoted an entire chapter of his Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light to Nutella. His chocolate muse, ChloĆ« (a Frenchwoman who is paid to taste artisan chocolates -- why did the Duke career planning services not tell me about that job opportunity?) is a Nutella nut. Enough said.

Finally, here's a great read on Salon today titled Thomas Jefferson, America's original foodie.