Picnic Recipes: Roasted Potato Salad w/ Red Pepper & Smoked Paprika Dressing


My mother makes delicious potato salad, but I've always had trouble eating it. As far as recipes go, it's fairly traditional: a mayo-based dressing, boiled & peeled potatoes, hard boiled eggs, herbs etc. But every time I took a bite it went something like this: chew, chew, chew, CRRRRRUNCH, UGH! spit...

That crunch, in case you're wondering, is apple. APPLE! She peels and dices it just like the potatoes so there is no way of knowing what's really lurking in there among the deliciousness. The only way to know is to take a bite, and by then it's in your mouth and it's already too late.

My dad loves the apple in the potato salad. He loves the crunch and the sweetness paired with the creaminess of the potato. Our summer barbecue guests were also fans, and so, despite our (that would be my brother's and my) years of pleading, the apples remained. The only way I could get through a serving was to carefully use my tongue to test for texture differences and then (as inconspicuously as possible) spit out the apple bits into a little pile just to the west of my plate.


Since then, I've mostly stayed away from mayo-based potato salad--I know from experience that that creaminess has a way of hiding all manner of sins--and have been drawn more to the the oil-based salads, rich as they always are with herbs and lemon. So you can imagine my surprise when one morning I found myself excitedly mixing the ingredients for this salad.

Mayonnaise is not the star of this show. Think of it more like an errand girl whose sole purpose is to run here and there and to make sure the vibrant flavors get everywhere they are supposed to be. Blended with roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, and smoky and spice chipotle pepper, it's barely discernible. And the strong flavors all but assure that there won't be any unexpected (apple!?!) surprises.

This is a knock-out picnic dish, and one that you can easily throw together in less than an hour (plus cooling time). And if you're *really* in a hurry, pop the salad in the freezer when you're done. About 5 minutes in there and it will be cool enough to serve.


Roasted Potato Salad w/ Red Pepper & Smoked Paprika Dressing
(Heavily) adapted from a recipe by Bobby Flay

This spicy and smokey potato salad will appeal to those who like a little heat. The smoked paprika does wonderful things to the flavor, but also gives it a gorgeous, bright orange color--just perfect for a summer picnic.

Ingredients
2 pounds small red potatoes scrubbed and cut in half
1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup whole milk Greek yogurt (such as Fage)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 cup roasted red bell pepper slices (fresh or jarred)
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, seeded
1/4 medium-sized eggplant, roasted and cooled
2 tablespoons Smoked Spanish Paprika (hot or sweet)
1/4 teaspoon hot chili oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley


Directions

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F

Toss the cut potatoes with olive oil, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper until well coated and seasoned. Arrange on a baking sheet, cut side down, and place in oven until crisp on cut side and fork-tender (about 20 minutes)

While the potatoes are roasting, combine the yogurt, mayonnaise, bell pepper, chipotle pepper, eggplant, paprika, chili oil, and red pepper flakes in a food processor or blender, and process until creamy and smooth. Cover and set in fridge until ready to use.

When the potatoes are ready, remove from oven and let cool for 2-3 minutes until they are cool enough to handle, but still warm.

When ready, add the potatoes to a large bowl and pour on the mayonnaise and pepper mixture and the chopped parsley. Toss well to combine evenly and taste for seasoning.

Cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge to cool completely before serving.

We had a picnic!



A few weeks ago, I snapped out of bed and announced to a still-groggy Eugene that I had a plan.

"I'm going to have a picnic," I told him. "In Central Park. And I'm going to invite all the food and food writers and food people I talk to on Twitter all day long."

He gave me that look that he gives me when I come up with plans that invariably involve huge grocery bills and hours in the kitchen.

"And it will be a potluck," I quickly added. "So I won't have to do all the cooking. Everyone can bring something delicious, and we'll talk and laugh and lay around in the sun all day!"

At this he agreed that it was a good idea and went off to get ready for the day while I got to work writing up the invitation. By the time he got out of the shower, I already had my first RSVP from Anna of Very Small Anna and the plan was officially in effect.


On the morning of the party, I couldn't resist and got busy in the kitchen. I wasn't sure what the turnout was going to be, so I wanted to make sure that there was enough food for everyone. I roasted asparagus, made a simple chicken salad with sliced almonds, lemon, and green apples, and a roasted potato salad with a smoked paprika dressing. I also put together a few sandwiches with fresh mozzarella, eggplant caponata, and spicy ajvar on multigrain bread, figuring that any leftovers would be great for lunch the following week.

Given the unpredictable (and unseasonal) nature of this summer, I was a little worried about the weather. I spent the week trying to figure out what to do if it rained, and wondering if I could somehow hold the picnic on our living room floor. Fortunately, the sun came out and it actually turned out to be one of the prettiest days of the month.

Eugene and I got to the spot early and were surprised to see that the usually empty corner of the park was actually quite bustling with some kind of children's camp. There were counselors in white t-shirts and little kids playing kickball everywhere, so we had to walk a bit further down to the water's edge to find a spot. We settled in under a big willow tree, and spread out our brightly colored blankets just a few feet away from a thorny blackberry bush.


It's always a bit awkward waiting for strangers that you've only "met" virtually. Twitter profile pictures really aren't the most helpful for picking folks out in a crowd. There was another fairly large picnic being held across the way from, and since people kept arriving and walking straight towards them, we started getting a little worried that they were stealing our people. I was just about to march over to them, when it dawned on us that we should have brought a sign. Eugene grabbed a scrap of cardboard and ran up to the children's camp to borrow a marker. He came back holding a sign with the words "Nandita Tweetup!" written across it.

"Why didn't you write food blogger picnic?" I asked.

"You didn't even want a sign, and now you're complaining," he pointed out. "This will work."

We attached it (sort of) to the tripod and planted it facing the crowd (in case any of our people had been lured away). It did work, because within a few seconds, our first guests arrived. Erin, a blogger and writer whom I've chatted with on Twitter, walked over to us and set down a beautiful bowl of roasted vegetable orzo. Eugene's coworker Jan-Michael and his friend Tom also came by. Jan brought chips and a homemade buffalo-chicken dip that tasted absolutely incredible. It was like eating buffalo wings...on a chip! Tom contributed some tasty ham and cheese sandwiches cut into perfect cubes.




My friend DC, who is executive director of The LAMP, a kickass media literacy nonprofit, and his lovely wife Emily (the LAMP communications director) arrived soon after. DC shared a just-pulled from the oven pot of mouthwatering baked beans. They were sweet and smokey and absolutely perfect eaten straight from a plastic cup. He refused to share his recipe, and wouldn't even tell us what the delicious meat in it was, although we spent much of the afternoon trying to guess. All we know for sure is that it was definitely not bacon. (Or squirrel...)




The other guests quickly followed: Marc, the talented cook and blogger behind No Recipes, and his wife brought gorgeous summer rolls and a cool cucumber dip. Looney, my faithful friend and cohort brought focaccia with eggplant, onions, and garlic. Thalia, the marketing manager from our office cafe at Hearst, showed up in a brilliant Mexican peasant dress and with a bottle of sparkling apple cider. Shiv, from the ridiculously awesome blog Pithy and Cleaver contributed a chickpea salad with a cilantro-yogurt dressing; perfect for a summer picnic!




To drink we had bottles of red and white wine (carefully concealed from any passing nosy officers), Thalia's sparkling apple cider, a tequila-drenched watermelon courtesy of Anna, and an intoxicating strawberry liqueur, lemon, and thyme syrup (all homemade!!!) cocktail prepared table...er... blanket-side by master mixologist Payman.




Hermann, the lightning bolt behind the new food-focused meetup group, FeastUp, brought Polish sausage from Greenpoint, which paired perfectly with the cheeses selected by cheese monger-in-training, Francoise. Later in the afternoon, my coworker Aryanna wandered over, bringing along her friend Chimene who (like me!) wants to pursue a career in food writing and just completed a course on the subject. We compared notes on our respective classes while digging into the two-bite brownies and fruit salad that she brought.






Ironically (and despite the name of this blog), we didn't have as many desserts as I originally expected. While collecting RSVPs, several came in from bloggers who planned to bring cake or other sweet treats. Worried that we'd end up with nothing but pie, I asked all subsequent responders to bring a savory dish. But then theoriginal dessert-never showed up! Fortunately we had sweet strawberries and lavender-scented chocolate mochi chip cupcakes from Anna, who just moved to NY to start pastry school. I didn't get a chance to take a picture of them, but if they're any indication of her talent, she's definitely got some good days ahead!


It was a great time, and fantastic to have a little real-life interaction with some of the folks I talk to all week long online. I hope even more of you will join us for the next one! (And there will definitely be a next one...)

I'll be posting a few of the recipes (for the dishes I contributed) over the course of this week. If any of the other attendees blog about your dishes, let me know or leave the link in the comments.

Oh! And if you want to see the rest of the pictures (there are lots!), check them out on Flickr.

P.S. If you're wondering why I'm not in any of these pictures, it's because I was behind the camera. ;)

An Open Letter to the Editors of Gourmet Magazine and One Ms. Marlynn Marroso of Brighton, Michigan

For the first time ever, I was disappointed by something I read in Gourmet magazine. It wasn't an ineffective recipe or mediocre essay, but rather, a letter to the editor written by a reader named Marlynn Marroso from Brighton, Michigan that was printed in the August 2009 issue.

In her letter, Ms. Marroso expresses dismay over the apparent excess of internationally-influenced recipes in the June 2009 issue. She asks sarcastically if she's expected to serve her friends "slab bacon adobo" or "refried black beans" as if the concept of doing so were completely absurd or even disgusting. "This is the United States of America, not Latin America," she notes by way of explanation for her disgust, and sardonically wonders if July readers looking to celebrate Independence Day will be subjected to "some great Mongolian or Ethiopian" recipe. She muses how in the past she would save each of Gourmet's "lovely issues," but notes that she will be "tossing out the June issue." Her reason that there is nothing in the issue worth saving is tacitly understood.

Readers have the freedom to think and write what they want, but it is up to the editors of the magazine to make the selection of which of the hundreds of letters they will print. These letters are selected and, as noted at the bottom of every issue, edited by staff. Most publications choose letters that show an equality of opinion and are representative of the many that they receive. They print both positive and negative letters, and sometimes respond to ones that pose a question or request further clarification. This is the first time, however, that I've come across a letter criticizing the magazine for, essentially, portraying too much diversity.

I understand that perhaps Gourmet was simply trying to allow "equal time" by choosing to print this letter, but in fact what they showed was a lack of judgment. Xenophobic and prejudiced people exist all over this country, but they certainly do not need to be provided with a soap box within the pages of a popular national magazine. On the most basic level, Ms. Marroso's letter lacked the clarity and organization of a well-thought out argument and should have been rejected on that basis alone. And her bigoted refusal to attempt what is quite possibly one of the most perfectly prosaic of all Mexican-influenced dishes, certainly did not merit the four-inches of space she was granted on that page.

Gourmet is a magazine that celebrates food and the experience of the "good life." Recipes both old and new, travel, restaurants, and traditions are all a part of this. Any reader, whether picking up the magazine for the first time, or a subscriber for 30 years, would instantly recognize this. Someone who finds the inclusion of a story about "El Barbecue," a popular tradition among Latin people living in, yes, the United States of America, offensive or who groans at the mere suggestion of trying an "Ethiopian" recipe, is reading the wrong magazine.

The idea that because this is a US-based magazine it should not feature recipes that are actually very deeply ingrained traditions for thousands of citizens of these United States is preposterous, offensive, and incredibly short-sighted. For many Americans, the recipes in the "El Barbecue" story are just as traditional to them as the homemade burgers on page 38 and the steak on the cover. Even if these were completely new recipes, discovered in the deepest reaches of the Amazon and never before heard of in the United States, they would be worth mentioning.

As a full-time magazine editor I know better than to print a letter that blatantly insults and dismisses a significant percentage of the readership. As a budding food writer with aspirations of one day seeing my own byline in Gourmet magazine, I understand the value of being within the pages of that magazine and can't believe that the editors that I respect so highly would have seen fit to include her words--even if only to make a point. Had it been up to me, I could have thought of quite a few ways to better fill that space.

For example, I might have chosen to remind Ms. Marroso that, with the possible exception of corn, nearly everything we eat in this country originated somewhere far away. That there was a time when extra virgin olive oil was not a staple at every dinner table. That pie, the quintessential American dish, originated in the filled flaky filo pastries of the Middle East. I would have pointed out that had it not been for a few clever traders passing through India, the Dutch would have never perfected the art of pickle-making and our all-American burgers would have been left seriously lacking. And (just for fun) I would have pointed out that the very word "gourmet," was appropriated from the language of a country an entire ocean away.

On Independence Day (the holiday whose menu seemed to cause Ms. Marroso much consternation), my boyfriend and I joined my family at a friend's condo in West New York, New Jersey. There, we spent the day watching the Mets play, winning thousands of imaginary dollars on a rerun of Jeopardy, and waiting for the Macy's fireworks to be displayed just a few feet away in the Hudson River. Our table was covered with a selection of alcapurrias, a traditional Puerto Rican yuca fritter filled with sauteed beef that my dad purchased at a nearby Cuban cafe. A guest brought flaky chicken empanadas and grilled Argentine churrasco. And our hostess, a native of Mexico, served us a platter of sliced cucumbers and mangoes served the way she grew up eating them, topped with sprinkles of salt and chile sauce. There were hot dogs, too, and a huge bowl of roasted peanuts. As the day waned and our bellies started once again to grumble, a few of us scrambled across the street to the newly-opened P.F. Chang's, returning with bags heavy with shrimp lo mein and oolong marinated sea bass.

The conversation throughout the day was a blend of English and Spanish, with a sprinkling of Russian when my Ukrainian-born boyfriend called home to speak to his parents. We drank Coca-Cola, Corona, and a couple bottles of Australian shiraz. Our hostess's dog, an adorable half German Shepard/half Chow, scrambled at our feet gobbling up the scraps that dropped to the ground. When the sun set, we grabbed our sweaters and walked down the street to the riverfront where we joined hundreds of other families staring up at the sky. My little brother, who completed five years of active duty in the United States Marine Corps just one year ago, winced visibly as the fireworks soared through the sky; the sound, he told us later, was exactly like that of the rockets that whistled through the sky during the year he served in Iraq. All around us, cameras flashed and families murmured and exclamations from the crowd rose up in a blend of Chinese, Spanish, French, and Arabic. The languages may have been different and the food might not have been "traditional," but the sentiment was absolutely united.

I have no idea what Ms. Marroso did for her Fourth of July, but I can assure you that it was no less American than my own.


UPDATE: Thank you all for your incredible support! If any of you would like to send your own letter to the editors of Gourmet to let them know how you feel about this, you can do so here: http://www.gourmet.com/contact/contact_the_editors

Sour Cherry Financier

DSC_0882

Don't you wish you could just reach in and grab one of these? I stayed up late ogling them the first time I made them. And when I brought them into work the next day, my coworkers actually made "ooh" and "ahh" noises as they crowded around the dish, taking turns plucking a little cake or two up by the stems.

I love cherries and almonds together. There is something about the combination of scents that makes me all swoony and sends my head spinning. And the taste, well...would you hate me if I called it ambrosial?

sour cherries

The strange thing is that it took me a while to recognize exactly what it was that was sending me into such a tizzy. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of encountering the sniffing box. Or rather, "sniffing boxes," since I'm pretty sure that's not what they are actually called. I learned about this special box back when I lived in Florence and had to take a beginning sommelier class as part of my culinary program.

To be completely honest, that class was a bit of a joke. It was scheduled on Thursday mornings at 9 AM, which in theory might seem fantastic, but in reality is a terrible time for a wine class because it absolutely guarantees two things: The first is that your first glass of wine for the day will be poured and consumed around 9:15 AM. The second is that you will be useless for the complete rest of the day. By the second month, I was already loathing that morning wine class, which was made all the more unfortunate by the fact that Wednesday nights were THE going out night in Florence. And there is nothing worse than having to spend three hours sniffing and sipping wine when you've been out all the previous night sniffing and sipping tequila.

cherriesdouble

But I digress, because the real point here was the sniffing box, which was filled with little jars of unlabeled smells meant to help us "cultivate our scent palate" and "develop our nose". They actually used these absurd phrases. Each little jar, about the size of a baby carrot, was filled with a single smell. There was vanilla, banana, black cherry, grass, oak, even a little jar called "rain." Gross smells too, but we won't talk about those. The funny thing is that even though most of us think we know what things smell like, in actuality we don't. At least not until we're presented with a special box full of isolated scents. Even something as simple as a banana, for example, doesn't smell like just a banana. It smells like the peel and the earth, and sometimes even hints of your grocery store produce section. And this is the case for just about everything. At least, according to the "sniffing box."

My nose, un-cultivated as it may have been, gravitated towards one little jar in particular. It was bitter almond, though I didn't know until I'd asked, and when I sniffed it, I instantly felt that swoony feeling come over me. It was the first time I'd actually recognized the scent that I'd always loved in hand lotions and Italian Rainbow cakes and the amaretto liquor my dad sometimes ordered after dinner. I remember mentioning something this revelation to our teacher, a magenta-haired former-flight attendant (if you can believe that), but her blank smile and nod of her head assured me that she neither cared nor got it

DSC_0881

Fortunately, I did, and I think I've spent the proceeding six years baking that glorious scent. If you also get it, I suggest you make these little cakes. Ground toasted almonds are blended with soft white sugar, egg whites, and butter that's been browned to a pecan-like toastiness. A delicate sour cherry is tucked into the center and the whole thing bakes until slightly golden. They're good warm, but--like so many things--actually taste better the next morning after they've had a bit of time to get to know each other, I suppose. And the scent, well that's understood.

I have to confess that there is a bit of a trick to making these. The first time I made them I used a paring knife to delicately remove the pit without pulling out the stem. It took a bit of patience and stained the tips of my fingers a lovely shade of lipstick pink, but is really the best way to go. I proved this the next time when I attempted to repeat the process with a cherry pitter, gingerly angling it so as to push the pit through without pulling out the stem. It's not really possible that way; the pitter is much too violent and 3 out of 5 times, the stem will be thrust through along with the stone. (Of course, if you have a better way that does not involve maraschino cherries, please tell me in the comments...)


sour cherry financier


You can use any kind of cherry you'd like for these, but I think sour cherries work best because the tartness plays down the marzipan-like sweetness of the almond cake. If you're short on cherries, perfectly in-season raspberries will also work quite nicely.

Now, about that recipe...

Sour Cherry Financier

Ingredients
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup powdered or caster sugar
1/2 cup almond meal
5 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
24 sour cherries, pitted from the bottom so the stem remains attached(process described above)


Directions
1. Preheat your oven to 375ºF. Grease a 24ct mini muffin pan with butter. Set aside

2. Spread the almond meal in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until slightly golden. Let cool.

3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until the solids separate and turn lightly toasted. The butter will take on a fragrant, nutty aroma, and a golden, honey color.

4. Use a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth or (in a pinch) paper towel, to strain out the solids. Reserve the clear golden butter, and let cool to room temperature.

5. In the base of your electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the sugar, flour, salt, and almond meal until well combined. Add the egg whites, 1/3 at a time, until fully incorporated. Add the almond extract and the browned butter and beat until smooth and kind of gluey but silky.

6. Use a tablespoon to measure out a tablespoon of batter per muffin tin. Gently place one pitted cherry in the center with the stem poking straight up.

7. Bake at 375ºF for 12-15 minutes each, or until slightly crisp and golden brown on the edges. Cool in the pan for ten minutes before gently pulling them out (don't hold them by the stems while they're still hot) and letting them cool on a wire rack.

Carrot Pulp Cake with Maple-Orange Cream Cheese Frosting


Earlier this year I tried to make a soup out of green apple peels left over from a flurry of apple cake making. I had the best of intentions and, for a brief while, envisioned inventing something splendid. The results (I'm sad to say) were actually quite disastrous. I might even go as far as calling them disgusting. We tossed the whole (stinky) pot in the toilet and pretended like the whole thing never happened.

I still have dreams of using my apple peels for something other than filling the trash, but until that day comes, I can at least comfort myself with my ability to use carrot pulp.


I bought a juicer a few weeks ago. It was all part of this 101 Goals in 1001 Days challenge that I've put myself up to. Basically, I just made a long list of thing both big and small that I would like to accomplish within the next almost-3 years. I've actually already knocked out a few of them already, one of these being to purchase a juicer and develop a habit of making my own fresh juices. I'd always been a bit hesitant to do so because of horror stories about how difficult juicers are to clean and the hefty price, but I somehow lucked upon a fantastic little compact model that cleans easily and which only cost a shade over 70 dollars--the same amount I'd previously spent each week on daily 10-dollar green juices from the organic market.

The thing is that, just like with those apple peels, I was finding myself overcome with guilt at the amount of delicious and nutritious pulp that I was tossing out each day. So I started figuring out things to do with it. One of the most obvious (and delicious!!!) tips was to turn the pulp leftover from carrot juice into carrot pulp cake. I gave it a shot (using my favorite stand-by recipe that I've been making since I was about 14)and came up with a pretty fantastic and perfectly textured version. The trick to using pulp from which all the juice has been extracted, is to replace the missing water content. I used unsweetened applesauce to supplement, but I suspect that crushed pineapple, yogurt, or even a mashed banana could work as well.


One thing to note is that the frosting for this is actually a bit runny. I like it that way because when it finally does set (after a night in the fridge), the result is just luxuriously creamy without being all that heavy or too sweet. To help yourself, make the frosting first and then let sit in the fridge while you mix, bake, and cool the cake. Or you can add another cup or two of powdered sugar to help thicken it; just note that this will also make it much sweeter.

Oh, and if you're wondering. This cake can also be made using plain old shredded carrots instead of juicer pulp. Just eliminate the apple sauce and you'll be good to go. If you like nuts in your cake (I don't) these can also be added to the batter, or used to decorate the sides of the cake.

Carrot Pulp Cake with Maple-Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients
For the cake:
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon (Vietnamese, if you have it)
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup granulated white sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (use a nice fruity kind)
4 large eggs
4 cups carrot pulp from juicer
1 cup unsweetened applesauce

For the frosting:
16 ounces (2 packs) cream cheese
1/2 stick softened butter
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons real maple syrup
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
zest of 1 whole orange, finely grated
3 cups powdered sugar


Make the frosting first:

1. Using the electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until combined. Add the heavy cream and whip until soft and fluffy. Beat in the maple syrup, orange juice and zest. Add the powdered sugar bit by bit until completely combined (be careful as it tends to explode on your face if you add in too much at a time). Blend well then press a piece of plastic wrap over the frosting and place in the fridge to cool while you make the cake. (Note that the frosting should be a bit runny)


For cake:
1.Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch-diameter cake pans. Line bottom of pans with waxed or parchment paper. Butter and flour sides of pan and tap out extra.

2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg in a medium bowl.

3. In the base of your electric mixture with the whisk attachment, whisk the sugar and oil until combined. Beat the eggs in one at a time.

4. Switch to the paddle attachment, and and add the flour mixture until all combined.

5. Add the carrot pulp and ginger and continue mixing. Divide the batter between prepared pans and bake for 40 minutes or until a tester inserted in center comes out clean. Flip the cakes out onto a wire rack and let cool completely.

When the cakes have cooled:

Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread with 3/4 cup icing. Top with second layer. Spread remaining icing over entire cake. Let chill before serving so that the frosting has time to set (about 1-2 hours)

Quenepas

Photo via Zoom's Edible Plants
I think I was nine the year I went to Puerto Rico with my dad for his friend's son's Christening. My mom and brother stayed home for reasons I can't remember, so for two weeks it was just the two of us, exploring the island and eating. Like me, my father likes to snack and feast, and thinks about his next meal midway through the current one. He gladly handed dollar bills out the car window to panhandlers on the highway selling plantain chips and bags of cucas, hard round cookies about the size of my palm that tasted of ginger and shortening with a hint of exhaust. They're the kind of cookies you gnaw on instead of chew, and I could gnaw through a bag for the better part of an afternoon while driving across the island.

We were heading east towards El Yunque, the lush tropical rainforest where my dad's hippie friend would be Christening his son in a river, because on this island even the hippies are Catholics. I wore an orange bathing suit that had reached its final summer, the fabric having grown thin and pilly from chlorine and rough concrete pool walls. The plastic fastener on the back had also grown loose and popped open repeatedly, but I didn't care because I was nine and had been brought to a real river in a real jungle to swim and play with cousins I only barely knew. We climbed huge boulders slick with vegetation, and jumped into the fresh water. Accustomed to pools, at first I squirmed at the thought of fish swimming between my toes in the murky depths, but soon shrugged it off after the third, fourth, fifth jump. The adults weren't really watching us, though they weren't far. Someone discovered a vine that dropped thick and strong from overhead and we grabbed it and swung and dropped in.

In the middle of the afternoon, we broke for the ceremony, and stood by watching as the baby's head was gently washed with three handfuls of fresh water from the river. One for the Father. One for the Son. One for the Holy Spirit. We broke into applause and were released once again. I lay on a boulder with a book, lapping up sun like a lizard and allowing myself to be interrupted only for the occasional treats my father offered--codfish fritters, flaky turnovers filled with cheese, and a bowl filled with quenepas.

Quenepas were always served with a warning. The tough outer shell bursts easily between your teeth with just the slightest pressure revealing a slick, fleshy pulp clinging to a pit. The texture feels almost inappropriate, but the fruit tastes of sweet lime and roses. Eating it is dangerous, since the smooth ball can easily slip down a throat, but we'd been eating them since forever and brushed off the warnings as we sucked on the juicy pulp. After a while, the tannins in the shell left the tips of our tongues feeling like they, too, had been sucked on.

Quenepas are everywhere in Puerto Rico, but in New York they're rare. So I tucked a bag of them among sandy shorts and t-shirts just before flying back. They didn't scan things quite as carefully then, and the seeded branch made it through two airports undisturbed. Back in school I told the class about the river, laying out smooth stones that I'd pulled out of the water and passing out one smooth lime green fruit to each of my friends. The teacher, a substitute with a puff of yellow hair and a southern accent, pronounced the names strangely, with a soft y and long a's, and said the word "baptism" like she'd never heard of such a thing. For a moment I questioned whether it was I who'd made the mistake; a wrong translation, maybe, or some kind of cultural difference. But the kids understood, and I knew that it was just her.

Years later I left my office in the afternoon mug of August to find myself standing in front of a box of them. Tiny green limes with just a hint of bruise all clustered on branches. The vender stared at me oddly as I hungrily shoveled large handfuls into the bag he'd given me. I brought six pounds back to my desk, dropping the pile excitedly before the coworkers who stared at me just as oddly. Stories of river and orange bathing suits tumbled out of my mouth as I showed them the way the delicate shell burst between my teeth.

"Be careful," I warned, when they finally lifted one up to their mouths. "They're dangerous."

And the winner is...

Thank you to all who entered the book giveaway. I got some great book recommendations and I'm excited to announce the winner of the four books. The lucky reader (as chosen by a randomly selected number) is:


Comment #9, or Hannah of The Daily Etsian!!!

A big congratulations to Hannah! Once I get your mailing address I'll be sure to pop your books in the mail. I hope you enjoy!

Thanks again to everyone who entered. Be sure to check back often for more giveaways. You can also follow me on Twitter at @nandita to stay informed about other fun contests.

Rhubarb Cherry Rosewater Crumble


We brought home a billion stalks of rhubarb the other day. It was really more like eight, but if you've ever carried a bag of long, thick, heavy stalks of rhubarb then I know you know what I mean. I bought the rhubarb with the intention of making a pie, but that didn't quite work out. The truth is that I'm not really committed when it comes to pie. I can make crust, but it bores me and I don't really even like it, to tell you the truth. That's why when the day came to make it, all I wanted to do was lay about with a book and a tall glass of coconut water while the fan blew cool and breezy on me. And as much as I tried to nudge and talk myself into it, I just wouldn't budge.

So I made a lazy pie instead. Or a crumble, if you prefer to be more exact.

Crumble is something between a crisp and a cobbler. It's basically just a dish full of pie filling, with a sweet, crumbly, slightly cakey layer of crust on top. When you pull it from the oven it oozes and bubbles and is all but guaranteed to burn the tips of your fingers when you set it down to cool. Your tongue too if, like me, you're unable to resist tasting a big spoonful of that still-too-hot-to-eat sweet.



This crumble gets its tingly mouthful of flavor from a combination of tart rhubarb, sweet cherries, and just a dash of rosewater. The marriage of flavors is perfect and the not-too-runny and not-too-thick texture puts those gooey canned fillings to shame.



If you've never tasted rhubarb before, I can actually relate. The truth is that I've really only tasted rhubarb twice in my life. The first was about eight years ago when I was an intern/office assistant at a Capital Hill nonprofit in DC. It was an office of the conservative sort, which meant it was mostly men in bow ties and navy sports jackets who drank and flirted and made impassioned impromptu speeches about Ronald Reagan and states' rights and bourbon. It's also where I met the lovely, lovely Moe who was the only other girl in the office and technically my "boss" at the time, though really we were more like war buddies who relied on each other in the midst of all that conservative testosterone.



The rhubarb came in one day in the early summer when Moe and a few of the peripheral women in the office (Wives, mainly. And some roommates.) got together for a day of pie baking during which they tested various crust recipes and fillings.

The results were brought into the office for us to try, and though I'm sure they were all lovely, the one I remember most was strawberry rhubarb. Something about that sweet and tart combination that made me feel like I'd been zapped back in time to one of those garden socials I'd read about in those silly young adult novels. That day, I kind of filed that lovely taste away with the intention of making something, but it wasn't until now that I finally followed through.

This recipe is really easy to follow. Just toss together and bake, really. If you don't have cherries, feel free to substitute strawberries or raspberries or whatever you happen to have hanging around. You can replace the rosewater with lemon juice or orange blossom water or even just a bit of vanilla if you like.




Rhubarb, Cherry, and Rosewater Crumble

Filling:
4-5 big stalks of rhubarb, cut into even pieces about 1" each
2 cups of sweet cherries, pitted and halved
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt

Topping:
1 1/3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 cup almond meal or other ground nut meal, toasted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup light brown sugar
Zest of one lemon
1 stick of melted butter

1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients for the topping (flour, ground almonds, baking powder, sugar, zest, and salt). Pour in the melted butter and use your fingers to combine until crumbly. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, prepare your filling by tossing together the rhubarb, cherries, rosewater, lemon juice, salt, and cornstarch. Make sure everything is evenly distributed.

3. Spread the fruit out evenly in a 9" square baking pan or casserole dish, including any juices that the fruit may have released. Top with the the crumble topping, making sure to distribute it as evenly as possible.

4. Place your baking pan on a baking sheet (this tends to bubble while cooking so this will save you some sticky oven clean-up) and bake for 1 hour or until the topping is golden and the filling has bubbled through in parts.

Let cool slightly before eating. To store, wrap with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge.

Blueberry Muffins


As much as I love homemade everything, I occasionally get cravings for those not-so-homemade treats of my youth. This week it was Dunkin' Donuts blueberry muffins. I used to LOVE those things growing up. Occasionally on the way to school, my mom would pull into the DD parking lot and my little brother and I would race in with only five minutes to get a little something for breakfast. I would invariably get the blueberry muffin because I was a little bit in love with the crunchy sugar crystals on top of the muffin.

It's probably been about 8 years since I stepped inside a Dunkin' Donuts. When I went off to college in DC, I had to forget about them since they're nowhere near as plentiful in the District (especially not Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle) as they are in NJ. One of my best college friends, Looney, was from Boston and had also grown up on the wonders of Dunkin' Donuts and agreed with me that everything they made was better than that Starbucks place...

Fast-forward to last week. I wasn't feeling too hot and suddenly all I wanted to eat was blueberry muffins. I hunted in vain for a copycat recipe, and failing that, adapted a Martha Stewart recipe I found. It wasn't quite right; a bit softer than I remember and I didn't have the thick sugar crystals for the top (I keep meaning to buy those!), but they satisfied the craving.

I made a dozen, hoping to have enough for the week, but within 2 days they were all gone. The culprit? My boyfriend, who gobbled down two as soon as they came out of the oven, and when I offered to pack him one to take to the office said "Oh yeah...I'll take these three big ones." Needless to say, come photographing time, I was only left with this little guy...



Blueberry Muffins
Makes 12

Ingredients
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups fresh blueberries
1 cup white granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar in the raw or decorating sugar crystals (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously butter and flour a standard 12-cup muffin pan. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Working over the bowl, toss blueberries in a fine sieve with about 1 1/2 teaspoons flour mixture to lightly coat (this will keep the berries afloat in your muffin, instead of letting them settle down to the bottom); set aside the flour mixture and the blueberries.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream your softened butter and 1 cup sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until combined. Mix in vanilla and lemon zest.

3. With the mixer on low speed, add reserved flour mixture, beating until just combined. Add milk, beating until just combined. Do not overmix. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the blueberries. Divide batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups. If desired, sprinkle sugar crystals on top of muffin batter.

4. Bake, rotating pan halfway though, until muffins are golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center of one muffin comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Turn muffins on their sides in their cups, and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature

To store: Wrap muffins individually in parchment paper and keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. If you want to save muffins longer than that, wrap individually in plastic wrap and freeze. To defrost, remove one muffin and leave on the counter overnight, microwave for 20 seconds, or split and toast in a toaster oven or toaster.

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