Some Finer Things of Life

A young professional resident of the Washington, DC metro area shares some of the finer things she encounters around her. The finer things in her life include a love of cooking and all things food as well as travel and adventure, be it local, regional, or further afield.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Crockpot Polenta

I love my crockpot. Anyone who knows me well will immediately concur with this statement. With an hour commute to work, my crockpot often keeps me in good stews and soups. I was very excited to try making cornmeal 'mush' in the crockpot. It is a beautiful thing! Polenta is a luxury that has been out of reach because of the time needed to prepare it on the stovetop. No more standing over the hot pot stirring or worrying about burning.

I use a plain yellow cornmeal (American grind), but a true polenta grind cornmeal will also work equally well. Rub butter on the inside of a 3 quart crockpot (or spray with a cooking oil - olive oil spray works well for a more flavored italian polenta.) Sprinkle 2 cups of dry cornmeal into the bottom of the crockpot and 2 teaspoons salt. Stir in 7 cups of boiling hot water, stir until lump free. Cook on high for 2-3 hours or on low for 7-9 hours. No stirring required!

I have made half of the above amounts with success. You may also replace some or all of the water with boiling chicken stock (omit salt if you use stock or broth as it contains salt.) Sage or other favorite dry herbs may be added as well. Whatever additions you make to your polenta while cooking on the stovetop may be incorporated into crockpot preparation.

To use your cornmeal mush/polenta -

1) Eat plain cornmeal mush for breakfast or brunch, adding some milk, butter, and some sugar or honey.

2) Pour into a large shallow bowl or platter and top with a ragu type of tomato sauce, sauteed mushrooms, or stewed meat, tender and falling off of the bones, with vegetables.

3) Pour into a buttered loaf pan and allow to cool completely. This firm loaf can be sliced and fried or made into a polenta lasagna.

4) Prepare a portion of the polenta using Clotilde's suggestion at Chocolate & Zucchini for a tasty polenta appetizer.

5) I like to separate my prepared polenta using some to make these great polenta squares and the rest for serving more traditionally or if it is early in the day as my breakast.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Evening under the stars

The sky is above us every day. With the internet, there are many resources to help us learn both the more familiar and well-known constellations as well as more advanced stargazing. Super cheap and quite fun, head to an unlit park with some friends or family after dark and enjoy the stars. No fancy equipment needed, particularly for beginners.

Stardate is both a radio program and a website that provides weekly highlights for the night sky.

Stardate also has a primer with suggestions for beginners.

One of my favorite resources is Starmaps. Here you can find monthly evening sky 'pdfs' that clearly outline what you will see when you look up.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Afternoon pangs

Weekend afternoons almost always involve some type of rummaging through the refrigerator or the pantry shelves in search of nibbles. Sometimes the craving/need is rather specific - sweet or savory, hot or cold. Sometimes it simply 'is.' A well stocked pantry of staples is definately the first line of defense.

Today, when mid-afternoon rolled around, the scavenging began. I first encountered the leftover roast vegetables from last evening's dinner (roast eggplant, onions, and sweet bell peppers with garlic and herbs.) This was immediately tasked to serve as the base of my afternoon creation. I placed 2/3 cup of these roast vegetables in the food processor. To this was added 1/3 cup shelled edamame and 1/3 cup peas (these came out of the freezer and were microwaved for 4 minutes before adding to the food processor), 2 tablespoons sundried tomatoes packed in oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 tablespoon homemade ketchup (this could be omited or substituted with tomato paste and red pepper paste.) This processed into a very thick tapenade that was wonderful spread over wheat thins and pita triangles.

Healthy, savory snack attack solved! (photo not included because, of course, the spread disappeared before the camera could be employed.)

Monday, August 29, 2005

Lemon Inspiration

microwave lemon curd - a beautiful jewel-toned yellow

Coming out of my experience at L'Academie de Cuisine (see previous entry), I couldn't get beyond the wonderful reintroduction to lemon curd. This smooth and creamy lemon 'sauce' is a staple in many British households. It can be spread on scones, used as a filling for layered cakes, or can compliment fresh fruit with pound cakes, shortcakes, or angelfood cakes. Mix it with cream cheese and serve as a dip on a fruit tray or fill a pre-baked pie crust with the curd and top with a fluffy combination of sour cream and whipped cream.

While the traditional lemon curd recipe shared by L'Academie de Cuisine was not difficult or complicated, the microwave lemon curd recipe I came across a couple of days later was so easy I immediately had to try it. This recipe is from 'The Complete Book of Year-Round Small-Batch Preserving' by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard.

Microwave Lemon Curd

2-3 lemons
1/4 cup butter

¾ cup granulated sugar
2 eggs

Finely grate thin outer rind of lemons. Squeeze lemons. Measure ½ cup lemon juice into a 4-cup microwavable container.

Stir in butter, rind, and sugar. Microwave, uncovered, on High for 1 ½ to 2 minutes, or until butter is melted and mixture is hot.

Beat eggs in another microwavable bowl. Gradually add hot lemon mixture to eggs, stirring constantly. Microwave this mixture on medium (50%) for 1 to 2 minutes or just until thickened, stirring every 30 seconds. Do not allow mixture to boil; mixture will thicken as it cools. Let cool. (If your eggs do become curdled because of overcooking, simply press through a sieve to remove bits of cooked egg.)

Pour curd into tightly sealed small container(s). Refrigerate up to 2 weeks or freeze for longer storage. (If you freeze, thaw overnight in refrigerator.)

Makes 1 2/3 cups.

(The instructor at L'Academie de Cuisine mentioned she makes different curds by replacing the zest and juice of the lemon with other citrus fruits, or omitting the zest and just using unsweetened juice to make black current or passionfruit curds. Definately something I intend trying.)

Cooking class - Now in Session

Ever wonder how to make your onion 'dice' more consistant? Or how to make the perfect bechamel sauce? If actual hands-on is not your type of cooking experience how about experiencing a Food Network type 'live show' where the cooks do the work and you (and any friends you take along) sample the results? The L'Academie de Cuisine's catalog of recreational cooking classes is comprised of many pages of small print, offering both the participation and demonstration style classes with just about any focus topic/food as you can imagine.

I recently took a Saturday afternoon to do just that, though the topic I chose was 'Canning and Preserving 101.' We, the audience, sat back while the experts educated us on the food safety and techniques associated with water bath canning and prepared chutneys, jams, conserves, curds, and pickles before our eyes. They started the class by quickly preparing a poundcake so that we would have a perfect platform on which to taste test the sweet spreads. (So thoughtful of them!)

L'Academie de Cuisine is located in Bethesda, walking distance from the Bethesda Metro Station and also has a facility in Gaithersburg. Definately a different way to spend a weekday evening or a weekend afternoon. Invite some friends and come prepared to eat!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Today I discoved a great place for an afternoon tea! Okay - they don't have a cafe, but they have a few picnic tables for those wanting to pack and tote a snack.

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens were started in 1882 by a Civil War veteran. It borders the Anacostia River (in Northeast) and is a series of manmade ponds featuring different aquatic plant life as well as a boardwalk into the Kenilworth Marsh. A man with quite impressive photography equipment shared that mid-July is about the best time for a visit, when all of the lotus and lilies are in bloom. Walking along the dikes, we saw a myriad of birds, frogs, butterflies, and friendly insects as well as the pond plants. Another path takes visitors on a stroll along the Anacostia river.

A wonderful escape (and no entrance fee required) that I will definately be revisiting.