Friday, September 29, 2006

It’s Alive! Sourdough Bread Experiment – Part I

Our innocuous little experiment, just some rye flour mixed with water, came alive!

And it stinks! Whew! Talk about sourdough!

We started our experiment by mixing 100 grams of rye flour with a little lukewarm water. Just enough to make a thin paste. We covered it lightly, and left it for a day.

Nothing. Not a bubble.

It’s like waiting for Christmas. Lots of hype. Then lots of nothing. Just the waiting. With the ever growing doubt that this is all real. Maybe it is a conspiracy. Hmmm.

After a day of nothing, we fed the mixture. Though it didn’t seem very hungry.

Another 100 grams of rye flour mixed with a little lukewarm water. This then mixed into the initial mixture. And I set it, covered, in a room that gets lots of sunlight, so is relatively warm.

And got busy with life.

By the time I got back to check on it, about 12 hours later, it had blown the lid off the container. It had expanded into a blob of bubbles at least 5 times its original size. I had to transfer it to a larger bowl.

And it started to stink. No so bad yet. But noticeable.

I fed it again. Same procedure. 100 grams of rye flour mixed with a little lukewarm water. And covered it for the night.

The next day – it was alive!

A light fluffy blob of bubbles. Some popping as we watched. Like it was on the stove cooking.

And stink! Whew! A strong sour rye smell.

I have to admit, I didn’t think it would even work. It seems too simple. Rye flour and water. Hopefully our house is infested with good bacteria. And I certainly didn’t think it would work so fast! I was planning on at least a week of waiting.

Well, I fed it again today – same procedure.

But now, it starts to bubble immediately. No waiting necessary.

It’s time to make bread!

If I have time today, I will try to bake the first loaf. Although, not being an expert bread baker, I have zero hopes the first attempt will come out.

But – can’t be so negative!

The first attempt will be for a spelt – rye bread (Dinkel-Roggen in German). Something I remember from Munich days, but can't get here in SoCal. This combination is common in northern European countries. As both rye and spelt are cold weather grains, historically surviving much better than the soft wheat grains in the cool climates.

All the sourdough Web sites (I’ve only researched the German ones) warn that this is a tough mixture to get to rise well.

Rye is especially tough to get to rise due to the makeup of its cellulose molecules, which differ fundamentally from wheat cellulose molecules. Rye cellulose contains a high amount of pentose sugars, which act to weaken the dough structure formed through kneading that traps air bubbles and leads to rising of the dough, and a light textured bread.

This pentose sugar, however, is easily dissolved in a light acid solution. Eliminating the pentose, such as by infusing the dough with a light acid during fermentation into a sourdough, allows the dough to retain much more of the necessary structure to trap air bubbles, and raise the dough.

That is one reason that many breads baked in this region are sourdough breads. The sourdough fermentation process allowed viable baked goods to be produced from grains that grew well in that climate.

Plus, from my perspective, it traded the yeast, which was just one more ingredient that had to somehow be procured, for bacteria, which is everywhere, and available for free.

To get the dough to rise, my sources recommend about 30% to 40% sourdough starter to additional flour and water. I.e. if you normally make a loaf of bread with 5 cups of flour, this time you use 3 ½ cups of flour and 1 ½ cups of starter. The rest of the starter is used to create another batch of starter for the next loaf.

They also recommend to bake the bread in a form. Even though the sourdough starter acts to improve to rising ability of the dough, the dough tends to both run out easily as well as to lose the trapped gas easily during baking. The form acts to both contain the dough during baking as well as to keep the air trapped inside the dough.

In Munich, they had wonderful ceramic baking pots with lids and those characteristic ridges built into them. I don’t have anything that elaborate, so I’m not sure what I will come up with.

But, with any luck, I’ll have a picture of something tomorrow. How tall of a something is yet to be determined!

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Nuts for Berries

As I mentioned yesterday, we are now nuts for berries. Berries as in the edible part of grains. Wheat. Oat. Barley. And so on. Nuts as in lost our minds (?!).

A new market is growing in prominence on our shopping forays. One which caters to berry eating people. Sort of an upscale, over priced store for displaced, now employed hippies. Called Mother’s Market.

It carries all the things that were once the badges of the back to nature movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Strong emphasis on organic.

Except for the prices, which are steep, it has that sort of laid back, friendly casualness. If not directly of a food cooperative, like back in ‘the day’, at least compared to most modern markets. Until you get to the cash register. But then, everyone there is apparently well employed (unlike back in ‘the day’), and therefore seemingly unconcerned about this aspect.

And it employs oddly reggae looking people, but still dressed in a casual uniform. They should have Bob Marley piped in, but when we were there it was Joe Jackson. More 80’s San Francisco than 70’s Jamaica, but maybe more fitting.

Their selection is pretty interesting. Things are stacked tightly, floor to ceiling, so you really have to hunt. But I have found things I haven’t seen in a US market for 20 years.

It used to be, you could go to any store and get a variety of flours. Rye, wheat, white, etc. But that all went away. Now, there is only white and wheat. Apparently no one makes bread anymore, and the few who do stick to the basics.

But here at Mother’s, I was able to find not only whole wheat, but also spelt. Something that is found often in northern Europe. Called ‘dinkel’ in German, it is made into a variety of breads and rolls.

This is of interest, as we are embarking on an experiment to make a real sourdough bread, made with our own home grown rye sourdough starter (at work as I write), along with a mixture of flours from rye, spelt, and a few other grains. Possibly for an announced World Bread Blogger Event. Assuming the experiment comes out reasonably photogenic. But the starter has a week to go before we can even experiment with baking. So I am not getting my hopes up.

Other than that, we have stocked up on all manner of grains. And TeenGirl has scoured the Internet for recipes that use these grains.

I feature another one here today. A salad made with wheat berries.

You can get wheat berries in ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ varieties. We chose ‘soft’, mainly because it seemed they would cook up faster.

To get some flavor into the berries, they are finished in chicken broth, and tossed not only with thyme and lemon zest, but also goat cheese.

Plus a colorful addition of wilted Swiss chard. Swiss chard not only adds a delicious flavor component, but also gives the entire salad a sort of reddish glow. Adding immeasurably to the appeal of the dish. Plus, of course, the contrast of the wilted chard to the slightly crunchy berries is also very nice.

The result was delicious. As well as low fat. And low glycemic index carbohydrates.

The nutty grain infused with lemon and thyme, moist with goat cheese and Swiss chard, it was a beautiful accompaniment to some oven grilled chicken breasts.

Aside from the fact that you have to plan ahead to cook the grain, the salad came together quickly. And delivered a lot of flavor for the effort!

Wheat Berry Salad with Swiss Chard
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

2 cups soft wheat berries
2 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
4 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
1 1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
4 ounces crumbled reduced-fat goat cheese
2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 bunch Swiss chard, washed, ends trimmed, cut into strips
4 tablespoons unsalted sunflower seeds, if desired
1-2 tbsp olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Additional fresh thyme leaves for garnish, if desired

Soak wheat berries in cold water to cover by 2 inches in a bowl, overnight, covered and chilled.

Drain wheat berries well and cook in pot of 2 quarts boiling water uncovered until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain well and toss with thyme and lemon peel.

Heat chicken broth in a large skillet over medium heat till it boils. Add Swiss chard, and sautee until wilted, 3-4 minutes. Add wheat berry mixture. Simmer mixture until broth is reduced to a couple of tablespoons, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, gently toss in goat cheese, lemon juice, and olive oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add sunflower seeds if using to salad, and toss.

Place salad on serving plates. Sprinkle with thyme leaves if desired. Serve. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Venerable Kitchen Sage gets Punk’ed

In fact, I probably am happy, once I get over being a little put off by someone out chef-ing me. In my own kitchen!

Not making demands so much. Simply causing menus to move in a different direction than I would have chosen. Just by being there.

It’s like we are all helpless to confront this new and growing kitchen force.

That I would have made some pasta? Irrelevant. Pasta is white flour. (Sigh!).

It turns out we no longer eat white flour. Or sugar. Or a number of other things.

And we apparently now eat wheat berries, quinoa, bulgar, and other whole grains. Plus only rice with the husks still on. Like brown rice, or red rice, or black rice.

All this new stuff appears daily in my kitchen pantry. With no effort at all on my part. Like magic. Except I still pay for it all. And our newly refined eating habits are spelled out to me with the firm authority of someone who has been doing this for 50 years. Along with some hints as to why (less fat, whole grain, complete protein, low glycemic index, iron, zinc, who knows what all).

So I can not really even participate fully in the menu discussion, as there are shelves full of stuff I don’t yet know about.

Hrumpf. There young punks! Think they know better.

But I ‘hrumpf’ to myself, because, as I mentioned, I’m actually happy that TeenGirl is interested not just in food, but in nutrition and health. And we are benefiting as well. Plus, as I can dimly recall, I was 16 once as well. Hard to believe!

However, the ground turkey is still a day older. And the red bell peppers are a day softer. So, pasta or no, we still have to figure something out quick.

Actually, though I wouldn’t admit it, it is sort of a fun challenge. Out with the same old same old. In with something.

My initial idea for today was a red pepper based pasta sauce. So minus the pasta, we decided to just go with a different grain. Since I have not really tried many of these grains, I figured to keep things simple, cook some up, and see how it worked.

We chose the quinoa. Although it looks like a grain, or a rice, it is actually a seed. Originating in South America, it was revered by the Incas and Aztecs. Even better, it contains a complete set of amino acids, making it a complete protein. So its nutritional factor is very high.

I made a simple red pepper sauce, adding some tomatoes as well, mainly to achieve enough volume and thickness of sauce.

And we put some sage meat balls on top. Sage! I kept the red pepper sauce simple as I wanted the sage meat balls to flavor the sauce as well. And they did! Nicely!

There should really be a better name for these things than meat balls. It sounds Neanderthal. Meat balls. Like someone took a giant scoop and dug out a hunk of wooly mammoth to gnaw on. But, hey! Everyone loves them! And heavily herbed up with sage, they really are delicious. We browned the meat balls first, finishing them in the red pepper sauce, letting them soak up the sauce for an hour.

The result was great! Simple, but very satisfying. The quinoa worked well with the sauce mainly because it is not a sticky, gummy sort of grain (no gluten). Rather, with just a bit of sauce, it keeps a nice light texture. Seems like it would work well in a lot of instances where a lighter looser texture is required.

And sage! I really love sage. Especially as the weather cools. It adds that depth to foods that touches you deep inside.

And all together? A very satisfying new combination.

Sage Meat Balls in Red Pepper Sauce on Quinoa
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

4 red bell peppers, seeds removed, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic
4-5 Roma tomatoes, peeled, chopped (or a 32 ounce can)
¼ to ½ cup red wine
4 pounds ground turkey
1 ½ cups bread crumbs (I used panko style)
4 tbsp chopped fresh sage
3 eggs
½ cup chopped parsley
salt, pepper
olive oil
1 ½ cups dry quinoa
Additional sage leaves, chopped, for garnish, if desired

In a food processor, puree the red peppers, onion and garlic. Add pureed mixture to a large, heavy pot, large enough to hold the sauce and the meat balls. Add the chopped tomatoes and wine. Cook the sauce over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it thickens slightly (note that the meat balls will absorb additional liquid).

While the sauce is cooking, in a large bowl, combine the meat, bread crumbs, eggs, sage, parsley, and salt and pepper. Form into egg sized meat balls.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. Carefully place meatballs in skillet, and sautee, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides. The meat balls do not have to be cooked through.

As the meat balls are browned, move them with a slotted spoon into the red pepper sauce. Let them simmer in the sauce for 30 to 60 minutes.

While the meat balls are simmering, place the quinoa along with 3 cups of water in a pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, until all the water is absorbed.

To serve, scoop some quinoa onto a serving plate. Place a few meat balls on top. Spoon some red pepper sauce over the top, and sprinkle with chopped sage leaves. Enjoy!

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Oktoberfest Fun - WHB

Fall is really the best time of year in Munich and the surrounding areas.

The weather in summer can be either hot and humid, or cold and rainy. Spring brings rain, snow, hail, winds, heat, sun, clouds and cold, usually all on the same day. Often within hours of each other. It’s the effect of the nearby Alps. Winter, although beautiful in the mountains, is a grey, damp, cold, messy affair in the city, with piles of crusty old snow riddled with yellow and brown dog droppings.

But autumn, sometimes quite warm, sometimes bringing the first snow by the beginning of October, is usually punctuated by beautiful ‘Indian Summer’ conditions. Painfully blue skies, crisp air, bright leaves, and of course the Oktoberfest. Certainly one of the world’s biggest parties. Causing over a million people to visit Munich in a two week period. Beginning in mid- to late September and ending every year on the first full weekend in October, which is why it is called the Oktoberfest.

But beyond the Oktoberfest, Autumn is the best season because Bavarian food is keyed to a cool or cold climate. A bit on the heavy side, at least by California standards, lots of roasted pork, smoked pork, things cooked in pork fat, with the world’s best beer to wash it all down. Stuff intended to keep your internal fire burning to stave off the cold nights.

As fall slowly descends on SoCal, the temperatures drop from the 90’s into the 80’s, sometimes even lower, the evenings begin to cool to the point that you really need a jacket. Sometimes dew appears on the lawns in the mornings.

Maybe we don’t have to huddle in a beer tent, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others, noshing on crackling crisp roasted pig knuckle and gigantic dumplings and drinking beer in liter mugs. But if we could, we probably would!

With all that in mind, I went a little Bavarian with ‘Zwiebelkuchen’, or Bavarian Onion Tart. Something I learned about while living in Munich. A simple dish, based on the most common vegetable, the yellow onion. And, of course, roasted pork fat. Plus some caraway seeds. For , sponsored by .

In Bavaria, the dish is more oniony. As you move west across southern Germany to Schwabbbenland, the Black Forest and Stuttgart area, it turns more and more into an eggy, quiche like dish. Mine is sort of in the middle, with a quiche-style filling on a more bready base. But the key is still the yellow onion.

The common yellow onion seems simple, but is not. Their high sulfur content causes the eyes to water profusely while chopping. Long, patient sautéing is required to coax out a golden, caramelized sweetness from their sharp bite. And often, something like caraway seeds are added to help relieve potential discomfort from eating too many of them.

Maybe the most common vegetable, onions come in a variety of colors and degrees of pungency or sweetness. Related to leeks, shallots, garlic, chives, they seem to be integral to almost every cuisine around the world.

A few links:
yellow onions
wikipedia Yellow_onion
wikipedia Onion

To get the most flavor out of an onion, they need to be sautéed over medium heat for a long time. Until the liquid trapped in the onion cells has evaporated away, and the starches in the onion have caramelized and sweetened. The initially while onion flesh turns to a deep golden brown, and loses most of its volume. You have to have patience to get to this point without burning the onions first. At least 30 minutes, if not more, of patience.

Since I don’t have access to authentic Bavarian style smoked pork belly, I used some good quality applewood smoked bacon. I sautéed this slowly, to render the fat, resulting in crisp tasty bacon bits. After pouring off most of the fat, this was used to sautee the onions. As mentioned, I let them cook over medium to low heat for about 45 minutes, turning more often as the liquid evaporated.

The onion and bacon mixture is then mixed with eggs, cream and caraway seeds, poured in a yeast dough shell, and baked.

The resulting ‘Zwiebelkuchen’, or Bavarian Onion Tart, makes a wonderful snack on a cool day. In wine drinking regions of Germany and Austria, they drink it with something called a ‘Heurigen’, which is newly bottled, very young wine. In Vienna especially, they are wild about this stuff in the fall.

But you can also enjoy it with a Munich style beer. After all, it is Oktoberfest!

Bavarian Onion Tart

Recipe translated from ‘Bayerisches Kochbuck’, 53rd edition, by surfindaave

375 grams flour (I used 300 gr whole wheat, and 75 gr white)
1 packet dry yeast
¼ liter warm milk
80 grams warm butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 ¼ kg yellow onions, peeled, sliced very thing into rings
1 pound smoked bacon, cut into small pieces
3 eggs, beaten
½ cup heavy cream
caraway seeds

Make the dough:

In a large bowl, combine the flours and salt. Make a mound of the flour, with a depression in the center. Add the yeast to the depression, along with a few tbsps of the warm milk. Sprinkle with flour. Cover the bowl with a towel, and let rise until doubled or more in size.

Add the softened butter, egg and most of the remaining milk to the bowl. Begin mixing the yeast ball into the flour (I use my hands for the whole procedure, but you can also use a wooden spoon). Mix the ingredients until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl, and all the flour is incorporated. Use additional milk if necessary to incorporate all the flour.

On a lightly floured board, knead the dough vigorously, adding as little additional flour as possible, for a good 15 minutes.

Place the kneaded dough in a lightly buttered bowl, and cover with a towel. I let my dough rise at room temperature to get a finer pore structure, but you can also put it in a barely warm oven. At room temperature, it takes about 3-4 hours to rise the first time. I punch it down lightly after about 2 ½ to 3 hours.

While the dough is rising, in ah large heavy skillet, render the bacon over medium heat. When crisp, remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels.

Pour off all but a few tbsps of fat from the pan, and return it to medium high heat. Add the onions, tossing to coat with the fat. Add the bacon bits. Let the onions sautee, tossin often, and reducing the heat slightly as they cook and begin to caramelize. They should cook at least 30 minutes, till they are very soft, and a deep golden color. Keep the heat low enough to avoid burning the onions as they cook.

Remove the onions to a bowl to cool

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

In another bowl, mix the eggs, cream, and caraway seeds. Mix the cooled onions with the egg mixture.

Press the dough into a shallow baking dish, pressing it up the sides.

Pour the onion mixture into the dough shell. Place the tart into the oven, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the filling is puffed, golden brown, and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center.

Remove the tart from the oven, and let cool. Cut into pie shaped slices, and serve with a green salad and a glass of very young white wine. Enjoy!

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Friday, September 22, 2006

A Simple Surprise – Sugar High Friday 23 ‘Surprise’ Edition

Surprises are not what they used to be.

In the old, old, old days, before times of embarrassing plenty and instant gratification of almost every whim, a surprise was a rare thing. It didn’t have to be something especially expensive. Because special things were so rare. They were precious simply because of how seldom appeared.

Of course, the old, old, old days had other problems, like black plague, and burnings at stake, and all manner of rapes, pillages and mayhem much worse in many regards than today’s issues (some frighteningly just the same today), so I am not wishing the past upon us.

Just setting some perspective.

When I first heard of this treat, I really couldn’t put myself in the frame of mind to see what the big deal was. There is a ‘surprise’ involved, but hardly seemed like one to make you turn off your iPod and log off the internet for. And if I wouldn’t do that, it certainly wouldn’t be worth it to fire up the Hummer, let alone the horse cart, to drive down to the local café to try one of these. Just google the cafe and get a picture of it, post it and done. We're so jaded.

But, age brings perspective. If not always wisdom.

Maybe it was the kids, exploring the world for the first time when they were young, things I no longer noticed occasions for exuberant excitement and surprise, with most of those things ending up in their mouths. And I see how one could find joy in a simple surprise, like a plum or a fig, baked deep into a pastry. Gently tearing open the sweet, still steaming dough to get to the juicy baked surprise in the center. Eating it all with some sweet, syrupy juices and fresh fruit. Maybe prepared for a special occasion. A holiday, or a birth.

So, with this acquired advantage of perspective, I immediately thought if this Bavarian treat for the ‘Surprise’ edition of Sugar High Friday. Sponsored this month by Alanna of A Veggie Venture .

A ‘Zwetchgennudel’ is basically a 'Rohrnudel', which is a sweet yeast dough, baked somewhat like a puffy roll, but in the center is stuffed (usually) a plum. Often with a cube of sugar inside the plum where the pit would have been. The plum, baked inside the dough, turns to a soft, sweet, mushy delight. Making a sort of instant topping for the pastry once it is torn open.

Well, the type of plums traditionally used in this, called Zwetchgen, are available here, but they are huge. Way too big to try to stuff into a roll like this.

So I went local, and used California figs. Making ‘Feigennudeln’, if you will. I have to admit I am not sure how to translate ‘Rohrnudel’ and ‘Feigennudel’ exactly. So I’m going with Bavarian baked pastry and Bavarian Fig pastry. I’m open to better translations. Maybe they are a sort of baked dumpling? Bavarian baked dumplings? Sounds better, but I digress …

Also, I didn’t want to use sugar cubes, as oddly enough no one here would eat them, so I went with honey. The trick being how to get the honey into the center of the figs, and the filled figs into the dough and baked. I froze the honey, and cut it into little cubes. I could then, if I was fast, get a cube of frozen honey into a cut open fig, and wrap the whole thing in the dough, pinching it shut, before the honey softened.

Lastly I made it with whole wheat flour. Just for TeenGirl. By the way, all the pictures today are again by TeenGirl (she's gettin' pretty good at this!).

So, a Munich specialty, updated. With figs, honey and whole wheat flour.

To go with this, people usually serve a sort of fruit compote.

I decided to go with the fig theme here too, and made a Fig and Pomegranate compote in Pomegranate syrup. Fresh pomegranates, squeezed, the juice boiled down with some agava nectar into a thick syrup. Delicious. I cooked the fig quarters in this for a few minutes, then tossed them with some remaining pomegranate seeds.

My surprise was that it actually came out halfway edible!

Eveyone else was completely surprised, expecting a plum, which is good but not such a surprise. And getting a wonderfully roasted fig. Which was a total surprise!

Bayerische Feigennudeln mit Feigen und Granatapfel Kompott
Bavarian Fig Pastries with Fig and Pomegranate Compote

Recipe translated and adapted from Bayerisches Kochbuch, 53rd Edition, by surfindaave

400 grams whole wheat flour
100 grams white flour
1 package dry yeast
¼ liter warm milk
2-3 tbsp agava nectar (or sugar)
pinch of salt
zest from one lemon
80 grams softened butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
Butter for greasing pan and buttering the 'nudeln'
8 fresh figs (not too large), tips trimmed, sliced about ¾ of the way through
8 tsp honey
Fig and pomegranate compote (recipe follows)

Place honey in a small dish in the freezer.

Mix the warmed milk and the agava nectar (or sugar).

In a large bowl, combine the flours and salt. Make a mound of the flour, with a depression in the center. Add the yeast to the depression, along with a few tbsps of the warm sweetened milk. Sprinkle with flour. Cover the bowl with a towel, and let rise until the yeast ball is doubled or more in size.

Add the softened butter, egg, lemon zest and most of the remaining milk to the bowl. Begin mixing the yeast ball into the flour (I use my hands for the whole procedure, but you can also use a wooden spoon). Mix the ingredients until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl, and all the flour is incorporated.

On a lightly floured board, knead the dough vigorously, adding as little additional flour as possible, for a good 15 to 20 minutes.

Place the kneaded dough in a lightly buttered bowl, and cover with a towel. I let my dough rise at room temperature to get a finer pore structure, but you can also put it in a barely warm oven. At room temperature, it takes about 3-4 hours to rise the first time. I punch it down lightly after about 2 ½ to 3 hours.

Without adding any additional flour, divide the dough into eight fairly equal pieces. Form each onto a ball.

Butter a 10 inch baking form thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 360ºF (180 to 190ºC).

Remove the honey from the freezer. One at a time, stretch each ball large enough to completely wrap one fig. Place the stretched dough on a board, place one split fig on top, and quickly spoon a tsp of frozen honey into the center of the fig. Close the fig around the honey. Wrap the dough completely around the fig, pinching the seams tightly and completely, and reform into a ball shape. Place each wrapped ‘nudel’ ball into the buttered baking form. Leave some space between each ball.

Repeat the procedure for the remaining balls of dough. Drizzle all the balls with a little additional melted butter, and roll them to cover completely.

Let the ‘nudels’ rise, covered, until puffed and doubled in size, about an hour at room temperature.

Bake the ‘nudels’ for about 30 to 40 minutes, until golden. Its hard to tell when the center doughs are completely cooked through, so I usually bake a bit longer to be on the safe side.

Remove the ‘nudels’ from the oven, and invert them onto a plate. Let them cool, then separate them into individual ‘nudels’.

Serve along with the fig and pomegranate compote. Eat by pulling them apart at the center to release the 'surprise', and mopping up the pomegranate syrup with the ‘nudel’. Enjoy!

Fig and Pomegranate Compote
Recipe by surfindaave

1 pint small black figs, tips trimmed, cut into quarters
2 pomegranates
1/3 cup agava nectar (or sugar)
juice of 1 lemon

Cut the pomegranates in half. Using a hand juicer, squeeze the juice out of 3 quarters of the pomegranates, reserving the last quarter piece. Carefully remove the seeds from the last quarter and reserve for later.

Compine the pomegranate juice, the agave nectar (or sugar) and the lemon juice in a small heavy pan. Bring to a boil, and reduce by about ½. Remove from heat.

Carefully add the figs to the syrup. Cook the figs over medium heat for a few minutes, until the soften, but have not fallen apart. Remove the figs from the syrup.

Boil the syrup until it thickens somewhat. Remove it from the heat, and let it cool.

In a bowl, combine the figs, pomegranate syrup, and the reserved pomegranate seeds.

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Finding Comfort South of the Border

I love the unique flavor tomatillos give to dishes.

They usually end up in salsa. Where the hot chilies and other things tend to overpower their flavor.

Moles offer a better stage for the tomatillo. Their complex and subtle flavors allowing the slightly acidy floral flavors of the tomatillo to shine through.

But better still is chili verde. Which is really not chili at all, in the sense we currently have for chili. It’s more stew verde. Where the tomatillo plays the main role.

Chili Verde is like the ultimate Mexican comfort food. Simmered long enough to extract all the flavors. Simmered long enough that the meat is practically falling apart. And simmered until it is thick enough to scoop up with a tortilla.

Since comfort is sort of the opposite of mouth-blisteringly hot, I keep the heat dialed down on this one. There’s some heat, but not enough to detract from the tomatillo flavor.

The fresh flavor and the slight acidity make tomatillos a perfect foil for rich roasted pork. But no one here will eat pork.

So I modified a nice recipe for chili verde from pork to chicken, and got Chili Verde con Pollo.

For the background heat, I used poblano chilies. Which are fairly mild, and give the final dish a wonderfully bright green color. I add a few red bell peppers for color, and balance it with some lime juice.

The basic dish is just chicken, first browned, then stewed in chicken broth until it is fall apart cooked. The flavorings, mainly the tomatillos, chili peppers and cilantro, come in later. The tomatillos also add a thickness to the stew, giving it some nice body.

Served over a whole grain rice (such as a brown rice, or we used red cargo rice, which is unhulled jasmine rice), this is a very balanced low fat, high vitamin, high protein and low glycemic index carbohydrate meal.

Easy to make and a comforting, if not directly quick, meal to enjoy after a hectic day.

Chili Verde con Pollo with Red Rice
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

3 pounds chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch cubes
2 onions, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
4 to 5 cups chicken broth
2-3 tbsp cumin
salt, pepper
4 poblano chilies, cut into ½ inch pieces, seeds can be used for a hotter chili, or discarded for a milder result
1 large red bell pepper, cut into ½ inch pieces
juice of 1 lime
2 pounds tomatillos, husks removes, and washed
1 bunch cilantro, stems removed
Additional chopped cilantro, for garnish, if desired
Whole grain steamed rice as an accompaniment

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat. Sear the chicken pieces, tossing, until browned on all sides. Remove to a plate.

Add additional olive oil to the skillet if necessary and sautee the onions over medium heat. When softened, add the garlic, an dsautee, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Add the chicken and cumin. Toss. Increase heat to high and add enough chicken broth to just cover the chicken pieces. Bring the stew to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer. Let the chicken cook for 40 minutes or so.

While the chicken is cooking, puree the tomatillos and cilantro in a food processor.

Add the chilies, peppers, tomatillo mixture and lime juice to the stew. Season with salt. Return stew to a bare simmer, and cook for an additional 30 to 40 minutes.

TO serve, place a scoop of steamed rice in the middle of a flat soup bowl. Ladle the chili verde around the rice. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro, if desired. Serve. Enjoy!

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Thinking Globally, Didn't Act Locally

Isn’t that what they always say you should do? Think globally, act locally? That’s what I should have done. Dream globally, accept locally might have worked as well. But it was the daydream globally, try to buy globally that got me into a mess.

In Holland, specifically Amsterdam, you can wander the canal-lined streets and find, among other things, wonderful cheese shops.

Very old buildings with tiny doorways, packed floor to ceiling with huge wheels of cheese and gigantic wedges cut there from. A pungent aroma fills the room. Throngs of people are packed into the tight walkways between these teetering stacks of cheese, forcing you to stop frequently and simply breathe in the pungent aromas. You can practically taste it as you inhale.

Unexpectedly helpful people are eager to cut you a thin slice of cheese after cheese. Unexpected maybe because it seems rare, outside Holland and Switzerland, to find such a level of enthusiasm, such a passion, over cheese.

But this is not just cheese. This is beyond cheese. This is simple, everyday milk turned into art. Gouda being maybe the most prolific of the different sorts.

The offerings range from the very fresh, soft, pale yellow of the youngest, to the deep, firm yellow of the middle aged, to the bright orange of the brittle and crumbly old aged cheese. The super old aged Gouda is often so brittle that it is not really possible to cut a slice. It resembles more a rocky cliff, rife with huge cracks, piles of rubble lying at the base where they have broken away and fallen off.

The flavors cover the range from a relative buttery, creamy barely perceptible taste to the bold, very sharp tang of the super aged ones. I favor the older, aged cheeses. They have a flavor that makes it clear why cheeses are so revered in some countries.

Mixed amongst the Goudas are the colorful rinds of Leeredamers, and Edams, and Leidenkaas, and Freisekaas. Also smoked Gouda. Something a bit different. I’m not really sure if this is a classic way to prepare the cheese, or something dreamed up to ensnare the tourists.

Well, I guess I had that image in my mind when my eye caught a recipe that called for smoked Gouda (or smoked mozzarella, but I didn’t dwell on that).

I found the cheese recipe while looking for a way to serve either barley or wheat berries. Don’t ask. Well, OK, ask. TeenGirl has read that wheat berries, and barley for that matter, are particularly healthful. Plus they are low glycemic index carbohydrates. Every day is a chemistry lesson here nowadays. If she doesn’t ace her chemistry class this year, I’m gonna make that teacher spend a week eating with us. She’ll learn a few new things about food chemistry. Whether she wants to or not!

The recipe I found is basically a salad combining cooked barley and wheat berries with some veggies. I figured I would get mega bonus points for getting both grains onto a single recipe. But what caught my eye was the smoked Gouda.

Now, I know that getting real aged Gouda, deep orange, almost red, sharp, pungent and brittle, in not possible in the US. Like smoking hash in public, this is reserved exclusively for the Dutch.

But, I was pretty sure I had seen smoked Gouda. Again, I was fixated on the authentic cheese from Holland. And I did in fact find a product called smoked Gouda. With a label indicating its origin was Holland. Despite my apprehension, I went for it.

The salad itself is fairly easy to make. Aside from boiling the grains, it is just a matter of combining the grains with vegetables, and a dressing based on balsamic vinegar, garlic and shallots. The smoked cheese was supposed to add a significant flavor component.

The basic salad was nice. As expected, the balsamic did indeed carry the day. With a parsley salad and a few grilled sausages (chicken, of course!) on the side, it made for a very flavorful, and healthy, meal.

But the cheese disappointed. Plastic in texture and artificial in taste. I guess I should have expected that.

In retrospect, after watching everyone pick out the cheese pieces from the salad, I should have gone with a home grown substitute. Something more local, made with real knowledge and love for cheese, maybe something from the Cowgirl Creamery, or Three Sisters Cheese, or Point Reyes Farmstead Cheeses, or Fiscalini Farmstead Cheeses, or Fagundes Old World Cheese.

Which are all California artisan style cheese makers. Local, so to speak.

But awfully hard to find. Apparently we live in the Velveeta and Kraft slices capital of California.

None the less, I’ll look a little harder next time. And encourage any who want to make the recipe to substitute a local, strong flavored artisan cheese, ideally something aged, for the smoked Gouda called for in this recipe.

Barley and Wheat Berry Salad with Parsley
Recipe adapted from Epicurious by surfindaave
Serves 4

1 cup wheat berries
1 cup pearl barley
1 small red onion, chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil (preferably extra-virgin)
1 shallot, minced
1 medium zucchini, grated
1/2 pound aged or smoked artisan cheese
6-8 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh chives
Parsley Salad as an accompaniment if desired (recipe follows)

Into a kettle of salted boiling water stir wheat berries and cook at a slow boil 30 minutes. Stir in barley and cook grains at a slow boil 40 minutes.

While grains are cooking, in a large bowl stir together onion, garlic paste, vinegar, and oil. Drain grains well and add to onion mixture.

Toss mixture well and cool. Add shallots, zucchini, cheese, tomatoes, chives, and salt and pepper to taste and toss well. Salad may be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring salad to room temperature before serving. Serve salad with parsley salad.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Classic Dilemma

Time again to magically produce something where there is apparently an abundance of nothing. But, it’s a dilemma of my own making.

Poor planning on my part, not to mention some high school sports events that went until after 10 pm in the evening, had left no time for cooking in the last few days. Let alone for shopping. No meals. No leftovers. An empty fridge! Everyone had to scrounge for what they could find. Survival of the quickest!

So, tonight, I wanted to sort of atone for the last few days. Make something, if not directly special, at least substantial and flavorful. Maybe atone is the wrong word. I just wanted people to not be able to complain anymore. Because their mouths were full of food.

Chicken breasts, figs and lots of wine. Plus a few onions. That was it. Most herbs in the fridge had finally given up the ghost. Except for the thyme, and miraculously the sage (go figure!).

In thinking about the possibilities to combine these into a meal (that people here would eat!), I drew a blank. Nothing tried and true seemed to be close enough to modify for the ingredients on hand. And the classic preparations rarely call for figs. Which is too bad, as they are not only delicious, but versatile.

My first thought was a sort of stew. Chicken breasts, browned, then stewed with the figs. A broth based primarily on red wine. As I had no white wine or chicken broth. But I also had no other veggies to go in it. And besides, carrots and figs? Hmmm.

I kept it simple.

In retrospect, the dish came tantalizingly close to the classic Coq au Vin.

Except that I had no mushrooms. Instead, figs. An improvement, in my opinion!

And I had no whole chicken. Just the breasts. Lightly floured and browned, they would be fine. But we were definitely giving up some of the flavor of the whole chicken for a low fat alternative. Everyone but me would be happy with that.

And I had no small onions. Not even an ersatz small onion. I did add a bit of lime juice as an acid to balance the figs’ sweetness, again mainly because that’s what I had on hand. I think here I could have used some balsamic vinegar instead. Next time!

Plus, as mentioned, I didn’t even have celery for a mire poix. Carrots alone didn’t seem to fit. So the thyme and bay would have to fill in the foundation here.

But, all that not withstanding, chicken and figs braised in red wine, with thyme and bay leaf, started to sound pretty good, again considering the starting point!

The last question was what to put in on. We could have added some rice to the stew, but I had promised TeenBoy some roasted garlic mashed potatoes since forever, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go with that. Until I opened the bag of potatoes, and promptly threw the contents out.

Polenta was the back-up plan. Creamy polenta with parmesan. TeenBoy was not directly mad, but definitely unhappy. TeenGirl, on the other hand, was in heaven. Hard to tell if it was because of the polenta, or because TeenBoy didn’t get his mashed potatoes.

The now ruby red chicken was tender as butter. The figs, balanced with the lime, lusciously rich.

All in all, I think the polenta was a better choice. The fig sauce was not heavy and fatty, but thick and rich. The polenta was a nice clean counterpoint to that heady rich flavor.

This one will get made again. That’s for sure!

And as we were done, that’s when it occurred to me that this was not soooo far from the classic Coq au Vin dish. Maybe not completely up to the level of the classic dish, but certainly a nice treat for a hectic Monday!

Chicken and Figs Braised in Red Wine over Parmesan Polenta
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

3 pounds chicken breasts (if very large, cut in half lengthwise)
1 cup flour
salt pepper
olive oil
2 onions, cut into eighths
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
2 pints small black figs, ends trimmed, cut in half, reserving 4-8 of them whole for garnish
2-3 tsp fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 bottle dry red wine
1 lime, juiced
2-3 tbsp honey
Parmesan Polenta (recipe follows)
Parsley, chopped, for garnish, if desired

Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Dredge the chicken breasts in the flour, shaking off the excess.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat. Brown the chicken breasts on both sides, removing them to a plate as they are done.

In the same skillet, add additional olive oil, if necessary, and sautee the onions over medium heat, stirring, until they begin to soften. Add the fig halves and garlic stirring gently, and sautee for 5 minutes over medium heat.

Add the wine to the pan, and increase the heat to high. Bring to a boil, scraping any brown bits clinging to the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium, and add the chicken breasts, stirring (if necessary, transfer mixture to a large, heavy pot). Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover, and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove the chicken and figs from the pan, discarding the bay leaves, and any thyme stems. Boil the remaining liquid until it is reduced by about ½, and has thickened somewhat. Transfer about half the figs and onions to a food processor, and puree them with the reduced liquid. Return the sauce to the pan. Stir in the lime juice and the honey to taste. Add the chicken and remaining figs and onions, and heat through over medium heat.

Serve the chicken, figs and onions on top of the polenta, spooning some of the sauce over the top. Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley, and one of the reserved figs, cut decoratively, if desired. Enjoy!

Parmesan Polenta
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

3 cups whole milk
3 cups water
1 ½ cups polenta
1-2 cups grated parmesan cheese (depends how cheesy you like it!)

Bring the milk and water to a simmer over medium high heat – watching carefully as it will boil over at the last second! Slowly whisk in the polenta and salt. Continue to whisk as the polenta thickens. If it starts to boil, turn down the heat a bit. Let it thicken to the point that it is hard to move the whisk. This will take 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Stir in the cheese. Serve.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Turning Gold to Rubies - WHB

Apparently we are getting immature fruit. Well, it probably fits in with us better anyways. We are not really oozing with maturity here. Markets around here sell the fruit when it is still green, although fully mature fruit turns a bright golden yellow.

Bur I love the fruit not for it’s golden color, but for the beautiful translucent ruby color it turns after roasting or sautéing.

It’s the quince, of course. One of the main reasons I love fall.

Once one of the most popular fruits across Europe. Now, seldom seen. Looking like a cross between an apple and a pear, usually hard as a rock, and not at all flavorful raw. Until cooked somehow, usually for quite a long time. Whereupon it transforms itself into one of the most delicious of all fruits. A favorite of mine.

Actually, quinces grow pretty well in SoCal. Although they are not such a common tree here. For some odd reason, I associate then fruit with New Zealand, apparently a big producer. Although, as I found out recently at our local Persian market, the fruit is very integral to the Persian cuisine, and indigenous to that region.

Known as the golden apple, the fruit was a favorite of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and so carries those sensuous connotations. Ancient Greeks loved it. Those of Christian faith are of the opinion that Eve actually plucked a Quince from the forbidden tree and fed it to Adam. Charlemagne brought the quince to France around 810 AD, where it spread quickly. The English probably brought the fruit and seeds to Australia and New Zealand in the 1800s. It was brought to the colonies early in the 1600s, and had a brief stint of popularity in America, but that has long ago given way to the apple, and to some extent the pear.

Here are a couple of links with some more detailed info on quinces:

Most commonly served now days as a sort of jelly, or often made into a hard paste, which is sliced and served with cheese. But these preparations hardly show off the quince to its fullest.

Over the years, I have most often roasted quinces along with chicken, fish, etc. Pork would also be a good choice, if I could get anyone here to eat pork. They also work well peeled, sliced into sections, and pan roasted. This can be done in both a savory preparation, such as in a stew, or as a sweet dish, maybe cooked in a buttery caramel. Or you can just roast the whole thing, and serve it as it as a side dish, or puree it into a sort of ruby-red quince apple sauce.

Quince based deserts are also good.

So when I found a recipe for a Quince Tart Tatin, that upside down dessert where the fruit is cooked in butter and sugar, then covered with dough and baked, I went for it. For this edition of , sponsored this week by Piperita of .

I was hoping the quinces would develop that wonderful ruby color during the roasting, and they did. They didn’t turn red until after the dough was put on top and they were baked in the oven, so it was a real pleasant surprise when we flipped the dessert out of the pan and revealed beautiful result.

All pictures are by TeenGirl, by the way. I think she did a great job!

I made a few changes to the original recipe, however. We basically don’t eat white flour anymore. No white bread, and all the things we bake are predominantly based on whole grains (teenagers!). Mainly because we are eating predominately carbohydrates with low glycemic indexes. So if you are into all that, and you have a clue what the glycemic index of a food means, then you know why we are doing this. If not, or if you are on a carbohydrate restricted diet, check here: Oddly enough, although most people use the glycemic index as a guide to choose foods to help lose weight, we use it as a guide to maintain weight. Turns out eating low glycemic index foods help control weight in general, helping maintain a proper weight, rather than focusing on specifically losing weight. Seems to be working well.

Plus, I mentioned a few weeks ago that we have given up sugar. No more white powdery sugar. So to make the caramel for the Tart Tatin, I used butter and agava nectar. I was more than a bit interested to see if the agava nectar would caramelize and brown up as required. And it did. Perfectly. Aside from having to boil off a bit more liquid than with sugar, I could not tell the difference. The caramel turned deep golden brown, and had a wonderfully buttery flavor.

I have been using this agava nectar for every instance where sugar is called for. Salad dressings, baked items, ice creams, everything. Works perfectly. And eliminates the well documented problems with white sugar.

So, even though this decedent looking Quince Tart Tatin would appear to be fattening and unhealthy, it is actually sugar free, made only with low glycemic index whole grains, and very healthy. Of course, adding the Crème Fraiche sort of tipped the balance back towards decedent and naughty.

Quince Tarte Tatin
Recipe adapted by surfindaave

2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into little cubes
1/3 cup very cold water
4 whole quince, peeled, cored, and cut into slices
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup agava nectar (or sugar)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine the pastry dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the cold butter and quickly massage with your fingers until the mixture resembles a very course meal with pea sized lumps of butter. Add the cold water and quickly mix and form the mixture to a ball. Turn out onto counter and form into a disc. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Combine the butter and agava in a 10 inch diameter cast iron or heavy bottomed pan with short sides. Heat until sugar turns a golden amber color about 5 to 7 minutes. Swirl pan to combine butter. Add the quince slices, toss to coat completely, and sautee over medium heat until the slices start to soften, stirring frequently.

Turn off the heat. Working quickly, remove the slices from the pan to a plate. Arrange the slices in the pan, starting on the outer parimeter of the pan, and working in a circular manner towards the center of the pan, packing the slices close together and in an interlocking design. Cover the bottom of the pan completely and evently.

Place the pan over medium high heat, and, without stirring, cook the quince slices for a few minutes, letting the caramel come to a full bubbly boil, until the caramel is a deep brown. Remove the pan from the heat.

While the quince slices are cooking, on a lightly floured surface roll dough into a circular shape about 1/4 inch thick. Diameter should be at least 1 inch larger than the pan with the quince.

Place circle of dough over surface of quince and tuck edges underneath quince to neatly cover.

Bake for 20 to 40 minutes or until pastry is golden (mine took a long time, maybe because of the whole wheat flour?). Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes. Flip quince tart onto a serving plate or wooden board. Serve warm with Crème Fraiche. Enjoy!

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Making the Cut – ‘Foods to Die For’ Meme Items That Didn’t Make It

This is my continuation of a Meme called: ‘5 things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die’, started by Melissa, of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I was selected by Haalo, of ‘Cook (almost) Anything at least once’, to offer my thoughts on the subject. Where upon I promply broke the rules and called mine 'Foods to Die For'. This a special entry of some things that were on the list, but not in the top 5. Item #1 is still to come.

While thinking about the ‘top’ five Foods to Die For, which is a relative thing, and probably would change a bit on any given day, I made up a list. Which I subsequently ‘prioritized’. So, I thought it would be fun to give a brief mention to some things that were on the list, but fell out of the top five spots.

So far, we have:
#5 – The communal sushi experience, three ways (Tokyo, Osaka and Seoul)
#4 – Open air non-touristy food markets
#3 – Steak with all the trimmings at Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, Arkansas
#2 – Wines from good vintage years from the Haut-Médoc region of Bordeaux, France
#1 – of course, I’m not going to spill the beans on that just yet!

In my intro, I also mentioned pizza after midnight at Lena’s in Fredonia, NY. As well as Bavarian Weissbier, the national drink of the Free State of Bavaria, enjoyed under giant chestnut trees along the Isar river in Munich.

Other items on the list that didn’t make the top five were:

Blueberry picking in Michigan: In mid-summer, when we lived on the shores of White Lake on the west side of Michigan, just down from Muskegon, in a tiny town called Whitehall, we went ONE TIME, and picked blueberries. Michigan has got to be the blueberry capital of the US. I vaguely remember moving through the short, scrubby bushes on a sweltering day, eating way more than half the berries picked. The main reason it didn’t make the list is just cause the memory is so fuzzy, I can’t really remember any of the emotion associated with the event. So, maybe I just assume it was fun, or maybe I read about other people having fun doing this, and had no actual fun myself. Who would know?

Buying buckets of live crawdads and shrimp along the Mississippi in New Orleans, and taking them home to boil and eat on tables layered with newspaper. Knowing just the right technique for removing the heads, popping out the body meat and consuming as many in as short a time as possible. Hey – it was on the list!

I could probably list a few restaurants in San Francisco over the decades that I liked a lot.

Paris too.

Then there are the roasted chickens at the Lindwurmstueberl restaurant on the Lindwurmstrasse in Munich, Germany. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of all the perfectly grilled chickens and French fries we enjoyed there over the years.

Of course, also in Munich is the world’s greatest open air food market, the Viktualienmarkt, in the center of town. I opted for the open air market in Paris, mainly because it was smaller, more intimate, and such a surprising find. But I went to the Viktualienmarkt with my two kids every Saturday for eight years, leaving at 7 or 7:30 in the morning on my bike, summer and winter, and loading up on amazing things. The kids got a free treat at almost every stand, maybe a pretzel, or a wiener, or a hunk of cheese. I loved it. I think they did too, for the most part. The shops offering 1000 different kinds of sausage, for example, boggles the mind. Or the potato guy, with his 30+ different varieties of potatoes. Sometimes we would get a bowl of soup at the Soup Kitchen, maybe Leberknuedel, or Erbseneintopf mit Wurst. Highly recommended.

Nice (France) has a nice open air food market, as well. Very crowded in the summer, though.

And of course the Biergartens throughout Bavaria. ‘Nuff said!

Or the wonderful hard sausages we bought from the shops all over Italy. In Sardinia, in Sicily, in Milano or Florence. That flavor is unique, intense, and completely addictive. I do not know the names of all the sausages we tried, but they are the hard ones, usually with a sort of whitish papery casing, and often tied with strong twine.

Or maybe being in Tuscany during grape harvesting and wine pressing time. Tasting our way around the tiny villages sitting on top of the hilly landscape. And veal. Tender and delicate, grilled in olive oil. Florence is the veal eating capital of the world.

Or black risotto and spaghetti in Venice, where they flavor the dish with squid ink.

Or just having had the wonderful luck to be able to enjoy 10 years worth of vacations around Italy. Spending weeks in every possible region. Mostly eating. And drinking.

Or the dessert cart that was rolled out to us in a restaurant in Wien (Vienna), Austria. I couldn’t really write about it ‘cause I forgot the name of the restaurant and can’t seem to find any hint of it in all my travel books. But I can say that it was stupendous. Outrageous. Verging on obscene, laden with sweet decadence of every possible sort. You could take a taste of any or all of the items. Whew! They had to pry me out of the restaurant.

Or the equally outrageous sausage cart that was wheeled out at the restaurant ‘D’Chez Eux’ in Paris, piled high with sausages, patês and breads.. Which was rated as a ‘good table’ 20 some years ago, when we tried it.

And Café Latte at any street cafe in Paris anytime in the morning. We had a contest one time to see if we could find the most expensive Café Latte in the city. We gave up a Les Duex Maggots, the ultra-tourist Mecca. It cost a bunch! Of francs, way back then. And it was far from the best (the best was also one of the cheapest!).

I also tried once to find the best baguette in Paris, based on various reviews. That’s worth a day of your life for sure.

A tour of single malt scotch whiskies, whether in Scotland (best!) or at home (with friends) is on the list. Lagavulin 16 year old won.

Aioli in Provence. Maybe served at a bistro on that wonderfully tree-lined street in the center of town.

And just in general, while we’re in Provence, Bourride, that silky smooth fish dish of the south of France, with some Aioli, is something I make every New Year’s eve.

Argmanac is on the list. Along with Calvados. Both of which can be sipped from bottles that are 50 or more years old. For a price!

Appenzell cheese, purchased in the Appenzell region of Switzerland is on the list. They make this stuff in 50 or more varieties. New, aged, aged more, really aged, and so on.

Red currants from Germany. I love love love the huge cardboard baskets of red currents you can buy all over Germany in the summer. Unavailable in SoCal!

Fresh tamales purchased from a roadside stand in Baja Mexico. Sweet corn tamales, green chili tamales, pork tamales, all sorts. Delicious is not a strong enough word. Go for the stands lined with locals. The food is the best and the turn-over is high enough to ensure the food is fresh.

Dropping $1000 at a super hip, super fancy restaurant in Brey, or Montjoi, or even London or Paris, that is rated mega stars. Four plus hours of tongue gymnastics. Flavors and combinations you’ve never dreamed of, with wines to match.

East Tennessee pulled pork BBQ. I didn’t know BBQ till I went to Tennessee. Eastern Tennessee, that is. At the Dixie Barbeque, on Roan Street in Johnson City, for example. Not ribs. But hunks of pork, smoked for hours, and simmered for hours more in their special vinegary BBQ sauces, then the fibers of meat pulled apart and served with additional sauces. Like Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce. I saved a bottle in my fridge for 15 years just on the name alone!

Finally, one of my favorites, but not a food per se, is to experience a foreign culture intimately. So close up that the experience changes your life and lasts for a life time. This happened to me shortly after I moved to Munich. I had been living there for six months. Was learning the language. And was beginning to feel a bit comfortable. And I wanted to try more and more of the local specialties. Like the famous veal sausage ‘Weisswurst’. So one evening, I ordered it. Just like that. We were sitting at a communal table, as is the custom in many restaurants in Munich. The talking stopped. Everyone, and I mean everyone, turned and looked my way. Aghast. The waitress, no lightweight, hiked her foot up on the chair next to me. Set her pad down. I figured she was going to smack me. She declared that she would not be bringing any of these Munich treats, as I had violated seven rules associated with the sausages. Seven! Everyone in the room nodded. Simultaneously. Who knew food could even have so many rules! And that everyone would be in such agreement!

Then she read off the rule violations, one after the other, and the room nodded and gave verbal encouragement to her. Tradition was at stake here!
Rule #1: Weisswurst may not hear the noon church bells. I.e. you don’t’ eat them after noon. It was evening at the time (they get old fast!).
Rule #2: Weisswurst are always ordered in pairs – i.e. one pair, two pairs, etc. I had ordered three individual sausages. My bad!
Rule #3: Weisswurst are eaten with special sweet Weisswurst mustard. I had asked for spicy mustard.
Rule #4: Weisswurst are only eaten with a Bavarian style pretzel on the side. I had asked for potato salad.
Rule #5: Weisswurst are always heated, never boiled, in warm broth. I apparently had inadvertently asked for them grilled, as assumed they were like other brat wursts. That may have been the last straw with everyone.
Rule #6: Weisswurst are eaten with Weissbier, the Bavarian national drink. I may have ordered water (apparently my feet were dirty?), or wine, or possibly even regular beer (Helles).
Rule #7: Weisswurst are eaten in a special manner (more later), that does not require fork or knife. I probably asked for a table setting, because it is common in Munich restaurants to get the table setting based on the order. Turns out, that was unnecessary in this case.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, nodded their heads in total agreement to the list of rules. Needless to say, I got no Weisswurst that evening. In the ensuing years of living in Munich, I became a bit of a Weisswurst expert, sharing tips on the where to get the best ones, how much parsley should be in them, finer points like that. As well as the special techniques for eating them, as the sausage casing is not eaten, and the best way is to sort of suck the tender flesh out of the casing in a method known as ‘Zuzeln’. Working for one of the large companies in Munich, we all stopped work on Friday at 10 am for a second breakfast of Weisswurst, Weissbier and pretzels.

But I never forgot the lecture I got that day, or the realization I came to that there were layers of unspoken collective understanding that bind a culture together that I did not even know existed. I’ve spent the remaining years searching out these unspoken, hidden layers, experiencing them, and gaining a new respect for some of the complexities of the different cultures around the world.

Up next – the #1 Food to Die For.

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Finding my Religion – 'Foods to Die For' Meme Item #2

This is my continuation of a Meme called: ‘5 things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die’, started by Melissa, of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I was selected by Haalo, of ‘Cook (almost) Anything at least once’, to offer my thoughts on the subject. Where upon I promply broke the rules and called mine 'Foods to Die For'. This #2 in my ascending list of 'Foods to Die For'. With only #1 still to come.

I thought about it for a while, I admit. Maybe it’s not a good idea. Too highly charged. Will alienate people. Cause unnecessary friction.

Then I figured, why change now?

More touchy than politics or religion to some. Very much like a belief or a religion to many.

Wine, of course. Maybe not always directly thought of (in the US, at least) as a food per se, but ever so closely associated with food, and still possibly something to die for.

I was not a wine drinker from birth. There are regions of the world where children are brought up with a proper education in all things wine. Not I.

If wine ever was served at my home when I was young, it was from a cardboard box. I mentioned recently in a Blog how I learned the ‘pleasures’ of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wines on the way to school in the bus.

Cheap American beer was more the beverage of preference with parents and peers.

But, I eventually grew a few taste buds. And my baby palette fell out and was replaced by a somewhat more refined adult one. Plus, I moved to the Bay Area, near San Francisco. Where everyone was gaga over Anchor Steam Beer, and Napa Valley wines.

Both were a leap for me. Anchor Steam beer is fairly dark and heavy compared to Bud. And the whole wine thing took a while.

But eventually I made the leap. And eventually ‘found my religion’.

With the all our friends constantly talking about and drinking wines, I started trying different wines myself. And quickly became an insufferable, uneducated, inexperienced wine snob.

Too funny for words.

Wineries in Napa, then Sonoma, then other nearby valleys, popped up like dandelions in summer. We tried them all. Expensive, cheap, whatever. Fueled by our first really good paying jobs.

The opportunity to live in Europe for a few years gave me a chance to expand on that base. I spent the first while blathering about California wines to people who could care less.

One of the many fascinating aspects of Europe is that they are not quite as driven to discard everything every month or two for the next new thing as we are here, especially in California.

I would regale people with stories of the latest American beers – red beer, dry beer (no taste! What a plus for beer drinkers!), lite beer. On and on it went. All the while sipping on beer that was brewed under the German Reinheitsgebot (purity laws), stemming from 1516, that dictated how beer was to be produced. They found it all hilarious.

The same held true for bread, coffee, sausages, and of course, wine.

Naturally, we tried lots of European wines. From many regions in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, even England grows a few grapes. I can look back and identify different phases. Big reds from Italy. Whites from Loire. Peppy wines from Spain. A champagne phase.

But that all came and went. Really without a conscience decision on my part. I wandered through the wine world, as always looking for new things, but also inclined to repeat purchases of wines I had enjoyed. So I wandered, not aimlessly, but in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.

But get somewhere I did. Eventially.

Naturally, as I write this, I am sipping on some wine. Wine that I realized some years ago that I prefer more and more. Wine from a particular region that, when I noticed it in stores or restaurants, was more and more often my choice. To the point now where it is my exclusive choice, to the extent that I can find it.

Here’s where we get religious, so no offense intended!

I began enjoying wine from this particular region with cheeses. Maybe a nice hunk of Compté, or a slice of Époisses de Bourgogne, or some Ossau-Iraty. Because I’m a big cheese lover. I would generally forgo dessert for a cheese platter and a glass of wine.

And, of course, I enjoyed these wines with almost any main dish. Because I don’t usually give a hoot about reds and whites and meat and fish and all those rules. Though I’m not a complete barbarian and generally go with the wine used in the cooking, and also defer in the case of fresh oysters, if they’re good.

I enjoyed these wines with tapas, and snacks, and hors d’oeuvres. And for general late night sipping while contemplating arcane and useless things.

In fact, I can hardly think of any food that does not go better with a bottle of nicely aged wine from this region. As long as you don’t get hung up on the rules!

A few years ago, I was secretly glowing inside when, upon selecting a wine of this region in a small but super hip bistro in Paris, the waiter indicated he was impressed and called this the world’s best wine region. Of course, he could have just been hustling for that big tip, but I chose to interpret it as a nod to my unbearably well developed wine abilities.

At that point, I figured I should take a look and see what the hell it was that I was drinking so often. Do some nominal research. As you can tell, this is just not my way. I go with what I like, my own instincts, and don’t care much about anything else. But the time had come to find out.

Think Pauillac, Margaux, Saint Julien, Saint Estèphe. Not just Bordeaux. Not just Médoc. But specifically Haut-Médoc. (OK – go ahead – boo, hiss, rant about over rated Bordeaux’s and how good California / Italian / Spanish / Australina / Chilian / etc. wines are. I’ll take a few more sips till you’re done!).

Haut-Médoc is a tiny thumbnail of hilly, gravely land with a lot of grapes. On the south-west shore of the Gironde river. Just north of the city Bordeaux. France.

Of course, I don’t actually drink the haughty elixirs named above, as I am loath to spend the $1000 per bottle, good as they may be.

I buy things like Chateau Caronne Ste. Gemme. Or Chateau Cambon La Pelsouse. Or Chateau Beaumont. Or Chateaux Cantemerle. There are many, many Chateaus in Haut-Médoc that are readily affordable to mere mortals. And they all must be tried, one after the other!

These wines go for $10 to $30 or so in wine wholesale stores, depending on how many points Peter Parker has agreed to award the given wine (this is a scam if ever I saw one). Sometimes, our local un-market Trader Joe’s has a Haut-Médoc wine for under $10.

Clearly, with wines like these, as with many things in life, the higher you can afford to go in price, the more perfect the product will be, for the most part.

But, that adage aside, I’ve found more satisfaction with these wines than any other I’ve tried. And I have had the occasional pleasure of stumbling across a bottle that is truly to die for.

A perfect blend of rich, deep blackberry and cassis flavors, that slight vanilla nuance, and, if aged well, those wonderfully satisfying silky tannins.

Rather than waxing loquaciously about a particular Chateau or vintage (go for the 2000s!), as I have not tried them all (yet!), and everyone has their own limits as to what they are willing to put out for a bottle of wine in a store or restaurant, I merely suggest giving a good bottle of wine from the Haut-Médoc region, from a good year, a try before you die.

I really think that, single malt scotch not withstanding (Lagavulin 16 year old, for example), I could die pretty happy while enjoying a good bottle of vintage 2000 Haut-Médoc, a broad selection of fine cheeses, and some very ripe figs.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Thigh Master

Our current theory is that some college-aged stock clerk at the local market is marking some packages of food with super low prices and hiding it a bit under other packages so his buddies can come in and buy the stuff on the cheap.

Initially, while pawing through some pre-packaged chicken, we found a few packages for less than 1/3 of the regular price. No sale was advertised. So we figured these were the ones that had fallen on the floor during wrapping, or maybe had been left out for a while. But close inspection turned up no evidence to support such theories.

Seems like the chicken price was simply marked incorrectly on some packages. Maybe the store just wants to spark interest in some products with a sort of price lottery concept? I assuage my ethical pangs with that idea.

So, of course, we now check all the packages when we shop. To the endless embarrassment of TeenGirl. But I don’t see how anyone could really notice what’s going on. Other than our prolonged stay in front of the chicken counter.

Then I stock up on whatever is mispriced / on sale / cheap.

I don’t mind the focus on one type of food for a few days. Though I seem to be the only one. But I can put up with a few groans when I consider the vast quantities of the earth’s valuable resources, not to mention my monetary ones, that disappear into two teenage mouths on a daily basis.

Any anyways, it provides me with a bit of a challenge. Basically the identical starting point two days in a row. How to make things interesting? Forces you to stretch a bit.

So I had about 10 pounds of skin-on chicken thighs on hand. Seems like a lot, but after you take away the bones, melt off all the fat and extract all the water they have somehow forced into the meat, there is only maybe four pounds of actual meat left. Still plenty for two dinners and a few lunches.

The first day, I kept it simple. Again in this damn time stress. But this time more of my own making (hey! There was significant belly button fuzz to be investigated. Along with some toe nail issues that required attention. That football games just happened to be on TV is not my fault!).

I went with a South-Western marinade for the chicken – lime juice, chili peppers, garlic, cilantro, olive oil. And roasted the chicken in the oven until the skin was crisp as an onion skin. 450ºF for 30+ minutes does it. Wonderful flavor. Super crispy skin. Served with a raw chayote salad, which also had cilantro as well as lemon dressing, and some brown rice. Delicious.

The next day was really the challenge. I had already taken the easy way out on day one. Today, I would have to be a bit more creative.

I spotted my jar of wasabi powder. Something I promised myself I would use on occasion. Experiment with. Hmmmm.

My initial thought was to marinate the chicken in a wasabi soy mixture. But wasabi looses its power quickly with heat, so that would be sort of a waste. None the less, marinating the chicken in a soy based sauce, maybe with sesame oil, would give it a nice dark color when roasted, plus a nice flavor, plus the brine would keep the meat tender during cooking.

The wasabi could come afterwards, in a sort of sauce to put on top of the roasted chicken.

Tender sesame roasted chicken with a nasal clearing wasabi finish. That sounded like a winner!

For the chicken, I mixed some soy sauce, a dash of rice vinegar, dark sesame oil, and added ginger and sesame seeds. Once marinated, I roasted it again at 450ºF for 30 minutes.

The skin didn’t get quite as crispy as the day before, maybe because of the brining. I finished it under the broiler for a few minutes, and that crisped things up a bit.

For the wasabi, I just mixed it with some water to make a paste, then with a little soy and some fresh orange juice (more oranges!). Toasted sesame seeds went in as well. Very nice. The orange and wasabi worked better than expected. With that in mind, I could have just used ponzu sauce instead of soy sauce. The wasabi added its unique kick to the dish, with the advantage that people could put on as much or little as they individually wanted.

We served this with some pan roasted baby bok choy (I blogged about this a few weeks ago), roasted in peanut oil, ginger and garlic. Along with some red rice (jasmine rice still in the husk).

And even though you knew it was basically the same meal twice in a row, the flavors came from so different of directions, and were so substantial, they made both dinners seem fresh and unique. The fiery heat of the first day replaced by the nasal clearing power of the second.

Some liked the super crispy skinned chicken the first day a little better, some enjoyed the sesame and wasabi flavors better the second day, but everyone agreed both days were delicious!

Sesame Roasted Chicken with Wasabi Orange Sauce
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

4 pounds chicken thighs
½ cup light soy sauce
3-4 tbsp dark sesame oil
2 tbsp sesame seeds, plus more to sprinkle on top of the chicken
2 tbsp peanut oil
1-2 tsp rice vinegar
2-3 tbsp ginger, chopped
Wasabi Orange Sauce (recipe follows)

In a large bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, peanut oil, rice vinegar and ginger. Add the chicken thighs and toss well to coat. Let marinate for 30 minutes, tossing occasionally.

Pre-heat oven to 450ºF.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place on parchment paper. Sprinkle with additional sesame seeds. Roast in oven for 30 minutes. Carefully pour off any juices that have accumulated in the pan. Finish the chicken under the broiler for a few minutes, until the skin is deep brown and crisp.

Serve with the wasabi orange sauce ion the side. Enjoy!

Wasabi Orange Sauce
Recipe by surfindaave

1 tbsp wasabi powder
cold water
1/3 cup light soy sauce
juice of 1 orange
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

In a small bowl, mix the wasabi powder with just enough water to make a stiff paste. Let sit for 15 minutes. Whisk in most of the soy sauce and orange juice. Taste and adjust soy and orange juice as necessary. Add sesame seeds.

South-Western Roasted Chicken
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

4 pounds chicken thighs
juice of two limes
3-4 clove garlic, minced
2 chili peppers, such as jalapeno, minced
1 cup chopped cilantro
3-4 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

In a large bowl, whisk together all ingredients except chicken. Taste, and adjust as necessary. Add chicken and toss well to coat. Let marinate for 1-2 hours, turning occasionally.

Pre-heat oven to 450ºF.

Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Place the chicken on the parchment paper, and pour the remaining marinade over the chicken. Roast in oven to 30 to 35 minutes, until the skin is very brown and very crisp. Serve. Enjoy!

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Remembering 9/11

I remember. I was watching the news on TV while doing some early morning exercise (it was about 6am in SoCal). I wasn’t concentrating on the news at first, and only began to realize what was going on as the second plane hit. We actually kept the kids home from school that day. I didn’t get to work till almost noon (PST). Of the others that went to the office that day, most were unable to work, in a state of shock. Calls came in from our customers, colleagues and vendors from around the world. Also in shock, all.

Shock turned quickly to resilience.

Within a few days, despite the travel restrictions, customers from all corners of the country had confirmed their reservations to our customer event, long planned for the end of September. Intending to drive cross country for our little event. Not willing to let terrorists win. People were determined to carry on to the extent possible.

Resilience supported the US war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. Resilience turned to confusion as Iraq suddenly became a US target. Confusion quickly turned to anger as an unjustified war became a reality. And eventually a tragedy in it’s own right.

In remembrance:

Killed in 9/11 attacks: 2,973, excluding terrorists (according to CNN, Sept 3, 2006)

US Troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan: 2,974 (as of Sept. 3, 2006, according to CNN, Sept. 3, 2006)

US Troops injured in Iraq: 19,773 (as of Sept. 3, 2006, according to CNN, Sept. 3, 2006)

Civilians killed in Iraq war since 9/11: between 41,650 and 46,318 (per

Combinations Part III

Summer’s gone. That’s for sure.

This morning (Sunday), it was decidedly not hot. As it has been for the last few months. Instead of being in a sweat at 8am, we were sort of huddled in now unfamiliar sweatshirts.

So breakfast would be hot.

But we hadn’t really prepared for this. Still being mentally in hot summer mode. So we had few things to base a hot breakfast on.

An abundance of whole wheat bread. Some eggs. And lots of figs.

The answer, as everyone has probably already figured out, was to make whole wheat French toast (Pain Perdu) with caramelized figs in orange sauce on top.

I was still feeling good about the orange / fennel combination from the previous evening. So I had oranges on my mind, and a few left. Actually, the ones left were more yellows than oranges, but the flavor of the juice was good.

I had made some caramelized figs in an orange sauce to put over a goat cheese some weeks ago. The sauce has a wonderful flavor. Not too sweet, but still thick and syrupy. Maybe too elegant for pancakes. But perfect for blini or French toast.

I mentioned yesterday how I love the combination of oranges and fennel.

Another combination that works very well is oranges and figs. Like the anise flavored fennel, figs also have a nice natural sweetness, and a fairly strong unique flavor. The orange again plays the role of adding a bit of acidity for balance, as well as some sweetness of its own.

On rare occasions, when I am thinking so far ahead that its is still Saturday evening, I have made recipes for French toast where you soak the bread in the custard mixture overnight. These are usually baked the next day. Making for a low-effort meal.

The vast majority of the time, however, it is already Sunday morning when we come to the consensus that French toast will be on the menu.

So I go with the quick version.

The overnight version, because of the long soaking and the baking procedure, results in a much puffier toast in a custard-like coating. Maybe this is the official version. I’m not really sure.

But the quick version can be just as tasty, and has the advantage (or disadvantage, depends what you’re looking for) of being a bit more robust, as in heavier. More stick to the ribs filling. Holds you over longer.

The toast and fig with orange sauce combination was fantastic, just as anticipated. Fresh figs are to die for. Figs roasted in butter (or our case, olive oil) are even better. The orange sauce provided the necessary ‘moisture’ to tie all the individually tasty components together into a deliciously unified perfection.

Since the figs roast while the toast is cooking, the whole thing takes less time than you might think.

Outstanding way to start a Sunday. A sprinkle of powdered sugar, and you have a really beautiful presentation as well. With a glass of champagne, it’s a celebration!

French Toast with Caramelized Figs in Orange Sauce
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

4 oranges, juiced (I used 2 oranges, plus a little orange juice)
1/3 cup honey
several sprigs of mint
Add a tbsp or two of triple sec and Curacao liqueurs, if desired

2 pints small ripe figs, tips removed, and cut in half
2-3 tbsp olive oil (or melted butter, if you are not serving to teenage girls!)
2 tbsp honey, warmed
Juice from 1 orange

16 slices whole wheat bread
6 large eggs
2-3 tbsp honey, warmed
2 cups milk
1 tsp salt
butter, for skillet

Powdered sugar for garnish, if desired
Orange slices for garnish, if desired

Preheat oven to 450ºF.

In a small, heavy sauce pan, bring the orange juice and honey (and liqueurs, if using) to a boil, and reduce over medium heat until about 1/3 of original volume and thickened. Remove from heat. Crush some of the mint between your fingers, and stir into the syrup. Let steep for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then strain out mint, and reserve syrup.

Toss the fig halves with the olive oil, honey and orange juice in a bowl. Place the fig halves on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast the figs for 20 to 30 minutes, until they are bubbly and just turning brown. Remove from oven and reserve.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, honey and salt. Ladle some of the mixture into a flat soup bowl large enough for a piece of the bread to lay flat.

Heat some butter in a heavy skillet over medium high heat.

Place one piece of bread in the egg mixture for 30 seconds. Turn bread over and place in egg mixture for another 30 seconds. Remove to a plate with a pancake turner (it will be very soft), letting excess egg mixture drip off. Repeat with a second piece of bread. When the second piece of bread is done soaking, place both pieces of bread in the hot skillet. Add some additional egg mixture to the soup plate and soak two more pieces of bread in the same manner while the bread is cooking. When the bread it browned on one side, turn, and brown on the other side. When the toast is cooked on both sides, remove the toast to an oven proof plate, and keep warm in the oven.

Continue soaking and cooking bread pieces, buttering the skillet lightly each time, until either the bread or the egg mixture is gone, keeping finished pieces warm in the oven.

Place two or three pieces of toast on each of four plates. Spoon some of the figs on top of the toast. Spoon some of the syrup onto the figs. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired, and garnish with orange slices, if desired. Serve with additional syrup on the side. Enjoy!

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