Itadakimasu

August 28, 2022

“Looking deeply into your tea, you see that you are drinking fragrant plants that are the gift of Mother Earth. You see the labor of the tea pickers; you see the luscious tea fields and plantations in Sri Lanka, China, and Vietnam. You know that you are drinking a cloud; you are drinking the rain. The tea contains the whole universe.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

 

This blog began over 12 years ago, based on the idea that giving thanks for each being and every thing that contributes to the food we eat is the quintessential ingredient for both the physical and spiritual digestion of that nourishment. I called the blog (and the little cookbook that preceded it) The Philosopher’s Spoon in honor of that quintessence. Just as the Philosopher’s Stone functions as the key to enlightenment in the practice of spiritual alchemy, giving thanks for all who contributed to the food that sustains us and gives us life became my Philosopher’s “Spoon” and enabled me to release emotional issues around food and become more outwardly and inwardly healthy.

Part of this practice of giving thanks was a short, silent prayer before meals, thanking, not only a higher power but also my fellow beings on this planet and acknowledging how many contribute to my daily sustenance.

The prayer went something like this:

“Thank you to the plants, animals and people who gave their lives, time and energy to bring me this delicious, nutritious and healing food. Help me transform this beautiful gift of life into a blessing that I can share with each person I meet in thought, word or deed and each in turn who is touched by them.”

Kind of long-winded (insert laughing emoji), but heart-felt and sincere.

For the last couple of years I have become interested in Japanese cuisine. I regularly enjoy cooking shows featuring bento box recipes, etc. I watch Italian programming as well, to improve my language skills, and follow both an Italian man living in Japan and a Japanese woman living in Italy. I’ve noticed that, just before taking a bite, Japanese-speakers say the word “itadakimasu” (pronounced eat-ah-dah-key-mahss – see video below).

I looked up “itadakimasu” one day and learned that it translates as to (humbly) receive. However, the word (related to the Buddhist principle of respect for all living things) holds much more within its deeper meaning.

Saying “itadakimasu” before a meal acknowledges the animals and plants that gave up their lives as well as each human who contributed in bringing the food to your table: farmers, including both planters and harvesters; fisherman and ranchers; packers and drivers and delivery workers; grocery clerks, cooks, chefs, and so on.

For those of you who may feel this acknowledgment of smaller souls somehow denies a higher power (God, the Universe, Allah, etc.) I would clarify that, for me, seeing God within my fellow beings and within every living thing or seemingly inanimate object is the ultimate recognition of an infinite being. My personal spiritual philosophy aims to see a connection to the greater power within all things, no matter how small.

What a joy to discover this lovely little word that holds my entire, wordy prayer of thanks within five simple syllables!

Now, before taking a bite I can smile and simply say “Itadakimasu!”

 

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During these last days of summer, give thanks for no-bake, cool and creamy Matcha Green Tea Cream Pie.

Matcha Green Tea Cream Pie
You can find matcha powder in any well-stocked supermarket tea section, at a Japanese market or on line.

 

For the crust:
2 cups lemon wafer cookie crumbs (about 32 lemon wafer cookies)
6 tablespoons butter, melted
Pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter)

For the filling:
1/4 cup cornstarch
3/8 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons matcha powder
1/2-inch piece of vanilla bean
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons butter

Optional to decorate:
Whipped cream
Sliced strawberries or blueberries
1 tablespoon matcha powder combined with 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
White chocolate curls

 

To make the crust:
Using a rolling pin, crush cookies between two pieces of plastic wrap. Combine the melted butter with the crumbs and salt (if using) in a bowl and mix thoroughly with a fork. Press mixture evenly into the bottom of an 8″ or 9″ springform pan. Refrigerate until set (about 1 hour).

To make the filling:
In a medium, heavy saucepan*, whisk together cornstarch, sugar, salt and matcha powder.

Split open the vanilla bean segment and scrape out seeds into pan with dry ingredients. Add the scraped bean to pan as well. Add milk and stir until thoroughly combined with no lumps.

Remove vanilla bean pod and discard. Turn on heat to between medium & medium-low. Cook, stirring continuously and scraping bottom and sides of pan, until mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a metal spoon (mine took about 12 minutes). Do not boil.

Remove from heat and stir in butter until melted and incorporated.

Let cool about 3 minutes, stirring often.

Pour over prepared cookie crust. Cover surface of custard with plastic wrap (to prevent a skin from forming) and chill in fridge for at least 3 hours.

Decorate with your choice of whipped cream, sliced berries, sweetened matcha powder, white chocolate curls or a combination.

6 to 8 servings

*Note: a clean, quart-sized mason jar with lid works well for pre-mixing the ingredients, an important step to insure a smooth, lump-free pudding. First, add dry ingredients to jar and whisk to mix. Then add vanilla and milk to jar, screw lid on tightly and shake everything until smooth and mixed, with no lumps. Now add this mixture to the cold pan; remove and discard the vanilla pod, and skip to the heating step.

 

Five in the Morning

June 22, 2022

“You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one; each day brings a miracle of its own. It’s just a matter of paying attention to this miracle.”
~ Paulo Coelho


From Sky & Telescope

 

“Look! up in the sky!”

This Friday morning particularly, but really through early July, those up about an hour before sunrise will be treated to a rare view of five of our planets in alignment and in their correct order across the sky. I’m not a morning person, but I’m going to do my best to wake up and peek out at this rare display. Luckily my bedroom window faces east, so hopefully I’ll be able to see it from the comfort of my pajamas.

Our Moon will also appear in the lineup.

The last time a similar view of the planets in the sky was visible from the U.S. was in the summer of 1957. The next time we’ll get a chance to see it won’t be until March of 2041.

Technically, as long as skies are clear or almost clear and you have an unobstructed eastern or southeastern view of the sky, you should be able to view the alignment. More details for how and when to best see this rare event can be found on Sky and Telescope.

Enjoy the view!

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Spicy Apple Salsa & Strawberry Salsa are sweet, savory and spicy culinary odes to the summer heat.

Spicy Apple Salsa
This tart and sweet salsa is kind of like apple pie filling with a kick. The pie spice flavor comes from a bag of “chai” spiced tea or (more accurately phrased) “masala chai” spiced tea: basically any spiced tea that contains cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom and such.

Try it over a cheddar cheese quesadilla or on top of a grass-fed cheeseburger. Rumiano makes my favorite sharp cheddar cheese. All of their dairies are located on the Pacific Coast region of Northern California. Their cows are grass-fed and humanely treated. Visit rumianocheese.com for more info and where to buy.

 

1 teabag of spiced tea (masala chai-style)
2 tablespoons butter
1 large Gala or Fuji Apple, cored and diced into small chunks
(about 1 & 1/2 cups of diced chunks)
1/2 a small red onion, diced (scant 3/4 cup of diced)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon brown sugar or turbinado sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 minced small hot chile (remove seeds for less heat)
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro (do not pack)

Steep teabag in 1/2 cup hot water for 6 minutes. Remove tea bag, squeezing to extract all of the liquid. Set tea aside.

In a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add diced apples and onions and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Add tea, lemon juice, brown sugar and salt. Stir to dissolve. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes, or until apples are tender-crisp. Remove from heat and let cool completely, uncovered (sauce will thicken as it cools).

Once cooled, stir in chile and cilantro. Taste and add salt, if desired (I didn’t).

Makes about 1 cup

 

Strawberry Salsa
This salsa will surprise you with its simple but sensational flavor. The strawberry taste is subtle at first, but adds just the right bit of sweetness without overpowering the tomatoes. Use it as you would a typical tomato salsa. It’s also delicious with grilled chicken. You want fresh, ripe (local if possible) organic strawberries and tomatoes for this recipe.

 

1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 medium-sized ripe organic tomatoes, diced (2 cups diced)
1 small red or green chile pepper, finely minced
(remove seeds if you desire less heat)
10 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced (2 tablespoons sliced)
1 fresh clove of garlic, minced fine
8 to 10 ripe, organic strawberries, diced (about 1/2 pint)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the chopped onion and lemon juice, set aside.

In a larger bowl, stir together tomatoes, chile pepper, basil, garlic and strawberries. Add reserved onion mixture and stir well. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Stir again and serve.

Keeps nicely for at least 2 or 3 days in a sealed container in the fridge.

Makes 3 cups

 

Tower of Understanding

May 24, 2022

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 


Mole Antonelliana, a landmark in the city of Torino/Turin, location for Eurovision 2022

 

As I mentioned in my last post, my friend Francesca and I recently attended a concert by the Italian rock band, Måneskin. They put on a fantastic show. The crowd was enthusiastic and the band appreciative. My friend and I had an amazing time sharing the experience, which was especially meaningful after the last couple of years with nearly everything shut down.

One thing stood out for me about the show. The band sings in both Italian and English. There were some Italian speakers at the concert (one of them was kind and patient enough to converse with me and let me practice my spoken Italian while we were in line to enter the theater), but most of the attendees were local and likely only spoke and understood English. What surprised me was that the English speakers in the crowd were also singing along with the Italian lyrics! I’ve noticed the same phenomenon while watching TV appearances by the Korean pop band BTS. American kids were singing along with the Korean lyrics.

The American and British music industries have been dominant in the world since I can remember. Music fans from non-English-speaking countries would often learn to sing along with American and British lyrics. Until recently, I don’t remember many English-speaking kids learning and singing along with pop or rock songs in other languages.

Friends and I followed the recent Eurovision Song Contest, held in Torino/Turin. The winner this year was Kalush Orchestra, a Ukrainian folk rap group. The selection was obviously a sentimental favorite, due to sympathy for Ukraine as it defends itself from the Russian invasion, but the song is quite good, with a catchy musical hook provided by a traditional flute-like folk instrument. Titled “Stefania”, the lyrics were written by the band’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk, as a tribute to his mother. The powerful video for the song serves as a tribute to all mothers, to all women and to the Ukrainian cultural identity. The English translation of the Ukrainian lyrics were included as part of the official video.

In spite of how technology has opened our horizons, social media algorithms have also encouraged information bubbles and often a narrowing of perspectives. This has unfortunately resulted in too many folks pointing fingers and seeing fellow humans as “the other” or even “the enemy” instead of our brothers, sisters and neighbors on Earth.

Breaking down the barriers of language through music can open us up to the reality of our shared experience and, after the last few years of isolation, the desire to share again, to get out into the world and travel and dance together.

In October 2021, the Italian-Tunisian singer and rapper Ghali, released a song in Italian, Arabic, French and a little bit of English. Titled “Wallah” (Swear to God), the lyrics speak of the need for people to dance together and travel to see one another after the pandemic years. The artist explained his reason for writing the song in multiple languages during an interview he gave in Italian, which I’ve translated here, because the sentiment is one we all can relate to:

“I feel the need, after two years like these, to get back to making people dance. Music, dancing are things that people need to feel good and I think that the weight of these last two years on people’s mental health is beginning to be felt. We need to affirm the importance of lightheartedness and “Wallah” is my wish that we will be able to get back to dancing together again very soon.”

I wholeheartedly agree. As that recent concert began, my friend and I jumped to our feet and didn’t sit down for the entire show. It sure does feel good to be dancing together once again.

~~~~~~~~~

Feta Guacamole is a delicious culinary mix of cultures.

Feta Guacamole
I had lunch with a friend not long ago and the restaurant featured a guacamole made with feta cheese. It was super yummy and I couldn’t wait to get home and try out my own version. It’s simple to make and the addition of feta to the traditional recipe adds a tang and depth of flavor that’s addictive.

The recipe is easily doubled for more people.

 

1 large avocado, diced (a creamy type, such as Haas)
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese, such as feta
1 rounded tablespoon of mayonnaise
2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice
Scant 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
Dash or two of your favorite hot sauce
Salt to taste (feta is salty, so use a tiny amount or none)
Black pepper to taste

 

Remove pit and skin from avocado and cut pulp into chunks. In a medium serving bowl, mash the avocado pulp with the feta/goat cheese and mayonnaise and mix well. Add lemon juice and oregano. Add hot sauce, salt and black pepper to taste. Mix again until combined and smooth and serve immediately (preferably) or cover surface with plastic (to prevent browning) and keep in fridge for an hour or two.

Serve with corn chips, pita chips and/or carrot, celery or cucumber sticks.

Serves two

 

Vent’anni

March 26, 2022

“Arise from sleep, old cat,
And with great yawns and stretchings…
Amble out for love”
~ Issa
(Translated by Peter Beilenson) Japanese Haiku 1955-56

 

My sweet Sofia (recent photo above) just turned 20 years-old!

It was on March 25, twenty years ago, that I found Sofia and her brothers abandoned in a shoe box, left inside a shopping cart in my local grocery store parking lot. I took them all to the emergency vet and the veterinarian on duty estimated them to be about 1 day old, which would have made their birth date March 24 (Oscar Sunday that year).

At the time Sofia’s entire body fit into the palm of my hand. I had to create make-shift incubators and feed them kitten formula every two hours through tiny bottles. Each had to be fed separately, so the formula would be the correct temperature. I wiped their little backsides with a warm piece of cotton after every bottle, to duplicate the mama cat licking them to encourage “elimination”.  I taught them to eat, to use the litter box and to grow up to be fine, upstanding feline citizens.

Today Sofia is like my “20 year-old kitten”. She can still jump up to the top of her 5-foot-tall cat gym. She continues to respond enthusiastically to peacock feathers waved in the air and she still carries her fave stuffed animal “Birdie” around the house (I don’t think she sees Birdie as prey, but rather as her own kitten). She occasionally walks like someone whose joints are a bit cranky and she has lost a bit of muscle tone, but the conventional idea that her twenty cat years represent 140 “human” years I find impossible to believe. I don’t even know of a 140 year-old human, let alone one that could still run, jump and play sports.

“Vent’anni” (the title of this post) is how you would say twenty years in Italian. It is also the title of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite musical groups, Måneskin, a good old-fashioned rock band made up of four Italian twenty-somethings. Their album, Teatro d’ira: Vol I (Theater of Wrath: Vol I) is one of the best rock albums I’ve heard in years. The album’s songs were written entirely by the members of the group and recorded live to recreate the feeling of a concert (a rarity in these days full of slick, over-produced pop tracks).

The band writes in both English and Italian. “Vent’anni” has Italian lyrics, so I’ve translated a bit of it here below. To me, the poetry perfectly captures the emotions of someone at the precipice of adult life, filled at once with expectation and uncertainty, enthusiasm and hesitation:

 

I’m twenty
So don’t be surprised if I make drama out of nothing
I’m scared of leaving only money to the world
And my name disappearing among all the others
But, I’m only 20
And I’m already saying sorry for mistakes I’ve made
But the road is tougher when you’re aiming for the sky
So choose the things that are truly important
Choose love or diamonds
Demons or saints

And will you be ready to fight or to run away?
And will you blame others or will the fault be yours?
Will you run straight to the sun,
Or towards the dark?
~ From “Vent’anni” (Lyrics written by Damiano David)

 

My friend Francesca and I are planning to see the group live soon. I’ve known Francesca since high school and I have many memories of when we were both entering our twenties, full of hope and plans, the years ahead looming large and full of possibilities.  We’ve gone to many concerts together over the years. I hope the band plays “Vent’anni” at the upcoming show. It’s one of those classic rock anthems that I can imagine our 20 year-old selves raising Bic lighters in the air to and waving them back and forth to the chorus as we stood on tip-toe to get a better glimpse of the stage (the back-in-the-day version of today’s concert attendees watching a live show through a phone screen).

Little did I know, back then, that I would grow up to be mom to a 20 year-old cat and still be going to rock shows with Francesca.

 


“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”

~ Albert Schweitzer

~~~~~~~~~

Make this 20 Layer Icebox Cake for a twenty year old birthday (or just because it’s yummy).

20 Layer Icebox Cake
This easy to make cake recipe is a twist on the classic icebox cake, made of cookies layered with whipped cream. The cookies soften overnight in the fridge and make for a fabulously decadent and rich cake. In this version, I used Joe Joe’s sandwich cookies, from Trader Joe’s, instead of the traditional chocolate wafers. Joe Joe’s are similar to Oreo cookies, the creme-filled sandwich cookie made famous by Nabisco. These days you can find many brands of the popular sandwich cookie. Newman’s Own Organics makes a variety of flavors, as well as Whole Foods 365 brand of “sandwich cremes”.  I used the traditional chocolate cookie with vanilla creme version of Joe’s Joe’s in my cake (two 20 ounce boxes). You could also make this cake with the chocolate-filled or other flavors or even mix and match. By using sandwich cookies instead of wafers, your finished cake will have 10 cookie layers, 5 cookie filling layers and 5 layers of mascarpone cream.

 

8oz mascarpone cheese
3 cups heavy cream (chilled)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
80 sandwich cookies, such as Joe Joe’s or Oreos
For topping, your choice of one or all three:
Fresh raspberries
Chocolate shavings
Cocoa powder

Make sure bowl, beaters and whisk are well-chilled

In a medium to large bowl (cream will double in size when you whip it), combine mascarpone cheese, cream, sugar and vanilla. Mix on medium-low speed using an electric mixer until soft peaks form (this will take a little while). Switch to a hand-held whisk and whisk by hand until medium-stiff peaks form (finishing by hand makes a big difference in how well and how long the cream holds its shape in your cake).

Assemble cake:
On a platter or cake stand, place 16 cookies flat alongside each other in 4 rows of 4, forming a square. Top the cookie layer with 1 & 1/4 cups of the mascarpone cream and spread this out evenly over the cookie layer. Add another layer of cookies, followed by another layer of 1 & 1/4 cups of the cream. Keep repeating cookies, then cream, until you have 5 layers of each, ending with a cream layer. Spread any remaining cream mixture around the sides of the cake (it’s OK if the cookies show through a bit).

Cover/tent loosely with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (I chilled mine for 21 hours).

Top chilled cake with fresh raspberries, chocolate curls, cocoa powder or all three!

This cake is very rich. Cut into small portions.

Serves 16-32

 

 

 

Green Season

March 13, 2022

“The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.”
~ Rumi

 

 

Spring has come a bit early to my house: the Orchid Sisters have returned!

When they bloomed last year, it had been after several years of no blooms at all. So after they had joyously occupied my kitchen for several weeks, I wasn’t sure, as that last flower withered and finally said goodbye, if I would ever see them again. I would say good morning to the plant and occasionally water the roots, her green leaves serenely soaking in the filtered light by the kitchen window; the beautiful, eccentric, pink-spotted blossoms just a memory.

Then, a few weeks ago, I noticed that a long, new stem with three little tiny buds had appeared.

Now two of those buds have grown and opened their petals into full and glorious pink polka-dotted bloom. They seem to me to have the same personalities and almost the same exact faces of last year’s flowers. It’s as if the blossoms went away somewhere for awhile and then came back to my kitchen to hang out for a bit with me. This time when they have bloomed for several weeks and are ready to leave again, it won’t feel so sad to say goodbye.

Their return is a beautiful reminder that nothing we love is ever really lost. Like Star Trek’s transporter, a familiar form appears to disappear, but it is not gone. It’s quintessence remains, and has simply reformed and reappeared in a place or time or form that we cannot currently see.

 

 

“You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”

~ Capt. James T. Kirk, Star Trek: The Original Series, “The Corbomite Maneuver”

 

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Celebrate all things green with Artichoke Heart and Edamame Salad.

Artichoke Heart and Edamame Salad
Artichoke hearts and edamame beans both bring a beautiful bright green to this protein-packed salad. You can find frozen, organic, shelled edamame beans at Whole foods and other grocery stores. Make this salad several hours or the day before you plan to serve it.

 

2 cups frozen, shelled, organic edamame beans
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (14oz/400g) can artichoke hearts (not marinated), drained
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

In a small, heavy saucepan, cook frozen edamame according to package directions. Drain cooked edamame, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Combine cooked edamame, the 1/2 cup of reserved cooking water, garlic, thyme and cumin in the saucepan. Stir well and cover. Simmer over low heat for a few minutes.

Turn off heat and stir in lemon juice and olive oil. Mash some of the beans lightly with a fork. Cut the artichoke hearts into quarters, add to pan with edamame and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool, stirring occasionally. Cover and let marinate in fridge for several hours or overnight. Serve chilled.

Serves 4

 

 

High(ish) Hopes

February 2, 2022

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series (1841)

 

For the last couple of years now, it seems we have been continually swimming in this pandemic, facing down wave after wave, as if caught in a riptide. The shore is in view, but each time we catch our breath and begin to swim for it, a new wave pulls us back.

There have been times when I’ve felt as if I’m drowning in pandemic fatigue. Still, for all the mental, emotional, financial and societal challenges that have presented themselves, one benefit of this time period has been that, often, there has been no choice but to live in the moment.

One of those moments led me to a January 10th announcement by Oregon State University about a study led by Richard van Breemen, a researcher with their Global Hemp Innovation Center, College of Pharmacy and Linus Pauling Institute. The study found that a pair of cannabinoid acids are able to bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, blocking an integral part of the infection process used by the virus.

The compounds are known as cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA). The spike protein these compounds are able to intercept is the same drug target used in COVID-19 vaccines and antibody therapy: it is a molecule whose disruption can block infection or progression of the disease.

The research also showed that CBGA and CBDA were equally effective against variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Additional research, out of the University of Chicago and published January 20th, showed that CBD prevented infection of human epithelial cells by the coronavirus spike protein and prevented entry of SARS-CoV-2 into cells.

Both CBGA and CBDA are derived from the cannabis plant, but from cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabigerol (CBG), not tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), so neither are mind-altering and both are legal everywhere. In fact, the Chicago research found that combining CBD with THC significantly suppressed CBD’s antiviral effect (in addition, smoking or vaping could cause lung damage that could put someone more at risk if they were to catch COVID-19).

Now researchers hope to move forward with clinical trials. Possible treatments will likely be the first to be tested, then prevention (testing prevention of infection would require sample sizes on the scale of those used to prove the efficacy of vaccination and be more difficult to fund at first).

One day these discoveries and others like them will hopefully lead to lives saved and improved, not only helping us out of the current pandemic, but perhaps future ones as well.

Eventually we’ll get to that shore. One day, like the pandemic of 1918, this time period will be a memory and I’ll be able to get dressed to go out without having to decide which mask best matches my outfit. Until then, as Ralph Waldo Emerson advised in the quote that began this post, I’ll try to adopt nature’s patience; buoyed by hope, humility, a sense of humor and love; moment by moment, if necessary.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, April 23, 1859, Journal, [1906]

 

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Celebrate green with the original 1923 recipe for Classic Green Goddess Salad Dressing.

Classic Green Goddess Salad Dressing
This tarragon flavored dressing is outstanding, but very rich. It works well on any bold-flavored greens, such as arugula or romaine. It’s also wonderful with cold chicken, shrimp or crab. Modern versions of the recipe may use avocado, yogurt or sour cream, but the original is mayonnaise-based. I would advise making the original recipe (it became famous for a reason) before experimenting with variations.

4 anchovy fillets (2 teaspoons)
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped (both green and white parts)
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1 & 1/2 cups organic mayonnaise
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
1 small clove of garlic, chopped

 

Combine ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth, green and creamy. Pour into a container with a lid, seal and chill in refrigerator until serving time. Leftovers keep for several days in the fridge.

Makes about 2 cups

 

 

A Winter Wish for You

December 24, 2021

 

Winter, the quiet season, has arrived. Beyond the hustle and bustle of the current festivities, winter is a time for shorter days, staying indoors and quiet contemplation. It is a season that offers us an opportunity to look back on where we’ve been and to look forward to all the possibilities held in the promise of a new year.

In that spirit, I would like to share a poem with you. Written by Charles Snell and published in 1914 as a small gift book, it has long been one of my favorites:

 

This Is My Wish For You

This is my wish for you…
That the spirit of beauty may continually hover about you
And fold you close within the tenderness of her wings.
That each beautiful and gracious thing in life
May be unto you as a symbol of good for your soul’s delight.
That sun-glories and star-glories,
Leaf-glories and bark-glories,
Flower-glories and glories that lurk in the grasses of the field,
Glories of mountains and oceans,
Of little streams of running waters,
Glories of song,
Of poesy,
Of all the arts,
May be to you as sweet, abiding influences
That will illumine your life and make you glad.
That your soul may be as an alabaster cup,
Filled to overflowing
With the mystical wine of beauty and love,
That happiness may put her arms around you,
And wisdom make your soul serene,
This is my wish for you.

~ by Charles Snell

 

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Chestnut Chocolate Chip Cookies are a super yummy way to enjoy oven-roasted chestnuts.

Chestnut Chocolate Chip Cookies
Years ago on a trip to New York City, I bought some roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and was kind of “meh” about the flavor and texture. Skip to present day when I recently saw some imported Italian chestnuts for sale at Trader Joe’s and decided to give them another try. The win-win was achieved by incorporating the chopped, oven-roasted chestnuts (instructions below cookie recipe) into a batch of buttery, yummy chocolate chip cookies.

 

2 & 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 & 1/2 cups brown sugar (I used Turbinado sugar)
2 large eggs
1 & 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup butter, melted and cooled to room temperature (I used salted)
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks (I used chunks)
1 cup chopped, oven-roasted chestnuts (instructions below recipe)

 

Preheat oven to 375°F

In a medium bowl, using a large fork, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a larger bowl, beat eggs and sugar together until lightened in color. Add vanilla and butter and beat again until fully mixed and creamy.

Gradually beat in dry ingredients.

Add chocolate chips or chunks and chopped chestnuts to batter and mix in well.

Drop by rounded tablespoon, 1-2 inches apart, onto ungreased baking sheets (I lined mine with parchment paper).

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until edges are browned and cookies look firm. Let baked cookies set for a couple of minutes and then move them to a wire rack or foil-lined counter to cool completely (unless you want to try a warm one or three).

Makes 4 or 5 dozen cookies

 

Oven-roasted Chestnuts
Use fresh, raw chestnuts (not canned). Check each nut for freshness: look for chestnuts that are firm, shiny and feel heavy. Toss any wrinkled or dull-looking ones. I started with a 16oz bag of raw chestnuts and had to throw out several nuts that didn’t seem fresh both before and after roasting, so I ended up with just a bit over 1 cup of chopped nuts.

Preheat oven to 425°F

Put the chestnuts flat-side down on your work surface and use a sharp knife to cut an X shape into the rounded side of each nut. You want to pierce the skin without cutting all the way through the meat of the nut. This keeps the nuts from exploding during roasting and makes them easy to peel.

Place the nuts on a baking sheet in a single layer. Don’t crowd them.

Roast the nuts in a 425°F oven for 20 to 40 minutes until the skins have curled back, revealing the softened nut meat. The cooking time will vary, depending on the size of the nuts, so check them visually at around 25 minutes. You can test if the nutmeats are done by inserting the tip of a knife into the opening where the skin has pulled back. If it easily pierces through, they are ready. If not, bake for a bit longer.

Cool the roasted nuts completely. After cooling, peel the skins off using your hands. You can use a paring knife for skins that need a bit more effort. Throw out any super hard nutmeats or nuts that look withered. Chop nuts into small chunks and measure out 1 cup for cookie recipe.

 

 

A Month By Any Other Number

November 27, 2021

“Gratus animus est una virtus non solum maxima, sed etiam mater virtutum onmium reliquarum.”

“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.”
~Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

 

My second language is Italian. Not long ago I was helping another native English speaker begin their own Italian language-learning journey. As I prepared a lesson on the words for the days, weeks and months I noticed that the Italian names for the last four months of the year: settembre, ottobre, novembre and dicembre contained numbers that didn’t match up with the months they represented. For instance, “sette” means seven; otto translates to “eight”; “nove” is the Italian word for nine and “dieci” is ten. The English words for the months: September, October, November and December also represent the numbers 9, 10, 11 and 12 (an “octagon” is an eight-sided angle) and I had known about this history years ago, but had forgotten it. Somehow looking at the months in Italian reminded me.

The original Roman calendar was said to have been invented by Romulus, the first king of Rome, about 753 BCE (Before Common Era). The Roman calendar originally used a system of ten months, beginning with Martius (March), named after the god Mars. With Martius being the first month, September was the 7th; October, the 8th; November was the 9th month and December the 10th.

In 45 B.C. Julius Caesar created the Julian calendar based on the Earth’s revolutions around the Sun, replacing the Roman calendar, which was based on the phases of the Moon.

The Julian calendar placed Januarius and Februarius (named after the Gods Janus and Februus) as the first two months of the year.  Quintilis (5th month) and Sextilis (6th) were now the 7th and 8th months and were eventually renamed after Julius and Augustus Ceasar, becoming July and August. September became the 9th month, but for some reason kept its former name (along with October, November and December).

Celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1 began with the Julian calendar in 45 B.C.

So, our eleventh month named after “nine” and the twelfth month of our calendar named after “ten”, remind us that not everything has to make sense and to celebrate the end of year holidays with joy, humor, tolerance and love.

“Except for love, nothing you see will remain forever.”
~ Rumi

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I based Barley and Roasted Pumpkin Porridge on an ancient recipe created by the Roman statesman, Cato the Elder.

Barley and Roasted Pumpkin Porridge
A hearty and healthy vegetarian meal fit for a Roman soldier (and a nice, nutritious break from rich holiday foods). If you have leftover fresh pumpkin from Thanksgiving, you can use that. For faster preparation, you can substitute frozen, diced butternut squash for the pumpkin and/or use quick-cooking barley (decrease cooking time accordingly).  If you do use a fresh pumpkin, be sure to save and toast the seeds for a nutritious snack (instructions given at end of recipe).

 

3 cups diced pumpkin (I used a sugar pie pumpkin)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 small onion, diced
1 & 1/2 cups barley
32 oz carton of vegetable broth
4 oz crumbled goat cheese, such as feta
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup chopped parsley

 

Preheat oven to 350°F

Cut pumpkin into wedges and remove seeds.  Peel skin from pumpkin (if this is too difficult, try microwaving the chunks to soften a bit, then peel).  Chop pumpkin flesh into small chunks (you want to end up with about 3 cups of chunks).

Arrange chunks on a shallow roasting pan.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper and cumin.  Drizzle with the honey and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil (you will use the rest of the olive oil to fry the onion).  Stir everything together to coat evenly.  Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until fork tender (you can stir a couple of times during roasting).  Remove and set aside.

Toast pine nuts:
Add pine nuts to a large saucepan and turn heat to medium.  Cook, stirring frequently, until just golden (nuts will keep cooking after you remove them from the heat).  Remove to a flat dish to cool and continue with recipe.

Using the same large saucepan, add remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil and increase heat to medium-high.  Add onions and cook a few minutes, stirring, until onions begin to soften.  Add barley and stir to coat.  Add broth and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer and cover pan.  Simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.  Turn off heat and let stand, covered, for about 10 minutes, to thicken.

Stir in roasted pumpkin and cheese.  Taste and add salt and pepper, if desired.  Serve hot, topped with chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Serves 4 to 6

To roast pumpkin seeds:
Rinse seeds in a mesh strainer, to remove bits of pumpkin string.  Heat oven to 300°F.  Spread seeds in a lightly oiled pan and heat 20 minutes, to dry out.  Stir seeds with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and dried, crumbled rosemary (optional).  Bake for about 20 minutes more, or until crisp, but not burnt (taste one to check).  Yummy!

 

FM Signals

September 23, 2021

“Suddenly summer’s work is over and whatever trials there were are done with. My heart is light… I am standing in a new-minted world, summer folded away like a rose pressed in a book.”
~ Gladys Taber, “Fall”, Stillmeadow Sampler, 1959

 

 

The fall season has arrived with its promise of cool, crisp weather, autumn leaves and, of course, pumpkin spice everything. I say “promise of” because a California autumn can begin with some of the hottest days of our year (as I began writing this post the temperature reading outside was about 93°F/34°C).

Despite the summer-like heat, I find myself in that fall mood – one that seems simultaneously wistful and hopeful, perhaps because the Autumn Equinox signals both an end and a beginning. Being the time when day and night are more or less equal, it is a season of in-between.

Last night, as I watched the slightly-waning Harvest Moon moon rise with a gorgeous, deep orange brilliance over the eastern horizon, looking forward to those rust and orange colored leaves falling from the trees, I was reminded of a video recently posted by an Italian youtuber who is color blind (daltonico, in Italian) and had just received a pair of special glasses from a company called Enchroma that would enable him to see the entire spectrum of colors. Watching the video of him as he put on the glasses and looked around his room in ecstatic amazement, then went outside and for the first time saw the sky and leaves and grass and flowers in all their rainbow variety, was truly touching and a reminder of how lucky I am, just the way I am, and that there are miracles happening every day.

Another point of light I’ve been enjoying in the recent night sky has been Jupiter, shining brightly in the constellation of Aquarius. Less than a year ago, the Juno spacecraft picked up an FM radio signal coming from Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Now, before you get carried away imagining alien DJs and podcasters, I should make it clear that Ganymede’s radio emissions are caused by electrons and not extra terrestrials. Scientifically known as “decametric radio emissions” (decametric refers to the wavelengths measuring tens of meters), they are naturally occurring radio waves.

So, whether it’s signaled by a radio emission coming from a distant planet’s moon; the steady glow of light from our own moon; the sight of leaves turning burnt orange and yellow; a bite into one of this season’s first apples or the scent of cinnamon and cloves being carried by a cool, crisp breeze; the fall season is here, reminding us that change can be beautiful.

~~~~~~~~~

Sicilian Pesto is a perfect recipe for the season of in-between. This creamy sauce can be served either warm or cold.

 

Sicilian Pesto
I discovered this recipe on the Italian recipe website giallozafferano (saffron yellow). I translated it and tweaked it a bit to simplify the preparation and it’s delicious. This versatile pesto can be served warm or cold; alongside crackers for a snack or appetizer; tossed with pasta and veggies or over greens as a pasta salad; filling a baked potato or layered into a pan of lasagna. It also makes a lovely appetizer when used as a filling for a perfectly ripe tomato at the end of tomato season.

Instead of ricotta, I substituted Whole Milk Classic cottage cheese from Good Culture in this recipe. They make an organic cottage cheese that’s delicious all by itself. It’s cultured and contains more protein, less sugar, no thickeners and is made with milk from pasture-raised cows, I’ll often run my finger around the inside of the empty carton to taste the last bits before throwing the container away; that’s how yummy their product is.

I also added a bit of crushed Calabrian chili peppers to the recipe, which is optional. You can find these jarred from Tutto Calabria online or at any store that carries imported Italian products or at Trader Joe’s labeled “Italian Bomba Hot Pepper Sauce”.

 

2 cups of diced, fresh, organic, vine-ripened tomatoes
1/4 cup finely-grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup ricotta or small curd whole milk cottage cheese
Rounded 1/2 cup of prepared basil pesto
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (half a lemon)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (half a lemon)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Salt to taste (I didn’t use any)

Optional, if you like a little extra kick:
1 teaspoon crushed Calabrian chile peppers
Or
1 teaspoon of your favorite (basic red) hot sauce
Or
Dash of cayenne or smoked paprika

Add all ingredients except salt, pepper and optional hot pepper together in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Taste and add black pepper, salt (if using – I didn’t use any) and hot pepper, if desired. Blend again to fully mix.

Do not heat. Serve immediately, tossed with warm or cooled cooked pasta or cover and keep in fridge until serving (best to use within a couple of days). Makes a great sauce for a pasta salad. Serve also as a dip for veggies, crusty bread, crackers or chips or as a filling for a baked potato or baked into a pan of lasagna.

Makes about 3 cups.

 

Girl Group

July 23, 2021

“Sow a seed and the earth will yield you a flower. Dream your dream to the sky and it will bring you your beloved.”
~ Khalil Gibran

The photo above is of the orchid blooms that greet me each morning when I come into the kitchen. The plant was a gift from a friend several years ago and came to me flowering. The orchid blooms fell off eventually and never returned, until recently. For years I watered the plant regularly and assured it that I loved it anyway, even if it never bloomed again. My neighbor friend fed it for me a few months ago and then, one morning, I noticed three little pods forming and soon after, those pods opened up to be three gorgeous spotted orchids!

They are part of the soul of the house now, and seem to me like an old-timey, close harmony-style girl group trio, like the 1930s Boswell Sisters.

Every morning, when I give my cat Sofia her breakfast and pull my cold-brewed coffee out of the fridge (because it’s too hot in summer to fire up the stove), I imagine those three magenta and white polka dotted orchid sisters harmonizing a little tune, such as this:

 

“The temple bell stops, but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”
~ Matsuo Basho

~~~~~~~~~

The vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla planifolia) is the source of the seed pods from which natural vanilla, used to flavor desserts & beverages, comes. Tahitian Style Shrimp in Vanilla Sauce is a savory way to enjoy the flavorful gift of this beautiful orchid.

Tahitian Style Shrimp in Vanilla Sauce
This simple but sensational dish is one of the most delicately flavored, sensual and elegant dishes I have ever made. For the healthiest and most environmentally sustainable shrimp, look for certification labels by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch or other reputable sustainability agency.

 

2 tablespoons butter
16oz of large, uncooked shrimp (31-40 shrimp per pound), peeled and deveined
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 (14oz) can light coconut milk (unsweetened)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 or 3 limes, cut into wedges

Optional to serve: cooked white rice

 

In a large sauté pan, over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add shrimp and vanilla bean. Sauté, turning and stirring frequently, until shrimp turn pink. Season with a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Remove shrimp to a plate and squeeze 2 lime wedges evenly over the shrimp.

Add coconut milk to the vanilla bean and remaining butter in the pan. Bring just to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally until thickened (10 to 12 minutes). Press the vanilla bean a few times to release the seeds.

Remove the vanilla bean and return the shrimp to the pan to heat through.

Serve shrimp and vanilla sauce alone, in a shallow bowl, or spooned over white rice, accompanied by a salad of butter lettuce leaves. Serve with lime wedges.

Serves 4 as a main course or 6-8 as an appetizer.