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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Nut & Honey

I made baklava last week. In case you do not know what this is, it is layers of phyllo dough, buttered and layered with chopped walnuts, honey and cinnamon. In case you do not know phyllo is impossibly thin sheets of pastry dough (you can read a book through them) that is often used in making strudel and other pastries.

I bought the phyllo on sale, intending to make a pastille (a Moroccan dish of chicken and phyllo layered with spices and dusted with powdered sugar). But the leftover chicken I had intended to use became Bill's supper one night so I had to find another use for the phyllo. I decided on apple strudel.

I have a friend who makes apple strudel from scratch, including the dough. This involves much resting and rolling and stretching of the dough to get it thin enough. It also requires much patience as the process is long and tedious and the dough is practically guaranteed to tear. Since I already had the phyllo I decided to go ahead with that. I diced apples and tossed them with cinnamon and sugar, layered the phyllo dough (which also requires patience that I do not have) and rolled up a pair of lumpy, crooked strudels. No matter, I baked them and they tasted just fine. The only problem was I still had half a box of phyllo left over.

I considered other dishes and perused my cookbooks but baklava seemed to be the most likely suspect. I coerced Bill into cracking all the walnuts we had in the house and chopping them coarsely. I based my recipe on two different versions from two different books, one proclaiming to be a prize winner. As I made the baklava I remembered the last and only time I had made it before.

When I was in sixth grade I found a recipe for baklava in a girls' magazine. Not knowing what it was I asked my mom who told me I would love it and we would make some. To my knowledge this is the only time I cooked with my mom, a possible exception being a time I baked (burned) a batch of cookies. Mom bought the phyllo, we layered it with butter and cinnamon, walnuts and honey and baked it.

At that age I had never been taken to a Greek restaurant. The wonders of braised lamb and roasted potatoes, Greek salad, flaming cheese and baklava were unknown to me. I agreed the baklava was delicious. For an unknown reason we never repeated the experience.

I layered and baked and thought of mom. I called brothers and sisters to chat about mom, about baking with her, about baklava and about anything else that came to mind. It felt good to connect with them by phone, and with mom by baklava. In case you want the experience, here is a fairly easy recipe for baklava. Warning: working with phyllo dough is a thankless task. It is temperamental and fussy. Maybe you know somebody like that?

I made a half recipe but here is the full recipe. Makes a 9 x 13 pan full, or 30 pieces.

4 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 package (1 lb.) frozen phyllo dough
2 - 3 sticks of butter, melted
cinnamon & sugar
pinch of ground clove or nutmeg, (optional)

Syrup
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups water
juice of half a lemon
1/4 cup honey
orange flower water (optional)

Thaw phyllo according to package instructions. Toss walnuts with 2 tsp. sugar and 2 tbsp cinnamon.

Divide phyllo dough sheets into five equal portions. layer one portion in a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish, spreading the layers to cover, if necessary. Top with 1/4 of the nut mixture. Repeat layers until there are 4 layers of phyllo and nuts. Top with the final layer of phyllo. Tuck in the edges of the phyllo and cut the baklava into squares or diamonds with a sharp knife. You should get 30 pieces depending on size.

Melt butter and pour over the baklava, making sure the entire surface is covered with butter. You can insert a knife around the edge of the pan to make sure melted butter flows down between all edges. (I used rather less butter than called for and thought it was almost too much). Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon over the top, if desired, and bake in a 350 f. oven about 35 - 45 minutes until very brown.

Meanwhile, bring sugar and water to a boil and simmer about 10 minutes. Add honey and lemon juice and simmer 5 minutes more. Add orange water (optional). Pour the syrup evenly over the partially cooled baklava. Serve at room temperature (or slightly warm if you cannot wait that long). Bill suggested serving with a spoonful of Greek style yogurt.

Quotable quotes; in the category You Ain't Never Had A Friend Like Me!

"How about a little more baklava?"

Robin Williams as the Genie in the Disney film "Aladdin"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

If You Knew Sushi . . .

I have been eating at a great new sushi place. No, I am not going to tell you the name as I want to keep it all to myself. But if you are in town I will take you there and you can enjoy delicious, fresh and cheap sushi.

Since January I have been rehearsing for The Secret Garden. I played Mrs. Medlock, the only non-singing character in the show. That's okay, Mrs. Medlock is also the most awesome character in the show and my wig and costume were the best. I would post a picture but then you would know what I look like. If somebody sends me a pic where my face does not show I will post that.

At first I was only called to rehearsals on Wednesday nights. Not bad, easy to tape the shows I watch and I was usually home by ten. But as the weeks went by I was called to more and more rehearsals until I was finally going almost every night of the week.

At first, when it was only Wednesdays and later when it was more often, Bill would have something ready that I could eat in the few minutes between getting home from work and leaving for rehearsals. This often took the form of burgers and fries from the Top Two. Now anybody who knows me knows that I loves me some burgers, but even that can get tired after awhile. Then I found the sushi place. I don't remember how I found it or what I was looking for when I stumbled upon it - likely I was searching for bento options (that's another post) and found this place. Various reviews were all extremely positive with one notable exception (quickly proven to be unfounded) so I decided to give it a try.

Sushi is a hard choice for me because guess what, I do not like raw fish. I know, I know. But there are several options for someone like me - the egg cake on rice, the California roll, which contains avocado and fake crab, and my favorite of all, Inari Sushi. This is a pocket made of fried tofu skin and stuffed with sushi rice. Most places, this one included, make it about the size of a regular piece of sushi, folding the excess tofu under. My favorite place to get this particular sushi crams that tofu pocket full so there is nothing left to tuck under. The finished sushi resembles a large, tan Easter egg with a snip of pickled ginger for garnish. Yum.

Imagine sushi rolls for as little as $2, pieces of sushi for $1 each. And all made fresh before your eyes, not packaged in a grocery store with a "use by" date stamp. Now imagine the sushi prepared by someone who knows you and greets you by name and takes extra pains to get your order just right - no wasabi for Bill, and here, try this while we finish your order. Just what you might expect in the local sushi bar.

But this is not the local sushi bar. Reviewers commented about passing the place by because they could not find it, or because they could not believe that anything good could come from this dismal, dreary storefront. But all were glad they did and most were torn between sharing the bounty and keeping this a closely guarded secret. I am in the latter camp.

So for now you will just have to be content knowing that I occasionally enjoy a sushi feast for a few dollars, and that Bill sometimes joins in the feasting for just a couple bucks more. Oh, and I have even sometimes had the tuna roll (good) but I will not be ordering the futo maki again (too much of a good thing and not enough variety - there's so much, it fills me up).

As we got closer to the week of the play I did not have enough time to eat sushi so it has been fast burgers for the past two weeks. Not to worry, tonight is Wednesday. It's sushi night!

Quotable Quotes; in the category At These Prices, I Could Probably Afford It!

"I could eat my body weight in sushi".

Mikey Way, bassist for the band My Chemical Romance

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fun At The Fair

Years and years ago I went to the Illinois State Fair with Bill and his family. It was a sort of de facto Nelson/Lockwood Family Reunion since many of Sallie's relatives lived in Springfield and many more came to town for the fair.

We stayed at the home of Sallie's Aunt Katherine & Uncle Harv (Harvard, not Harvey). This was the uncle who owned a vintage 1970s red El Dorado (could it have been a convertible?) and who arrived in Chicago every fall with a trunk full of fruit from his trees. He did not really have an orchard but they did live on a lake on a large parcel of land on which were planted several fruit trees - apple, peach, pear, plum - and each autumn he loaded up the trunk of the Cadillac with fruit (I mean loaded) to bring to friends and relatives.

Uncle Harv also had a large garden to which he rode a bicycle and where he harvested endless butternut squash. Probably there were other vegetables but I only remember seeing rows and rows of squash. He brought several back and Uncle Tom at once cut one up and cooked it with butter, salt and pepper, proclaiming it delicious.

Also staying in the house were other relatives. The camper trailer was set up in the side yard and Sara's family stayed there, while others stayed at the Holiday Inn in town. Believe it or not on the day we went over to enjoy the hotel pool, there was a beauty pageant in progress in the rather huge atrium/auditorium. Probably the Miss Teen Springfield pageant and likely in conjunction with the fair doings. We did go to the fair and I did enjoy it although we did not partake of the rides or the stage shows.

I had only been to the fair once before, the Michigan State Fair, and as a 12-year-old I thought the only reason to go to a fair or carnival was to ride a Ferris wheel, eat carnival food and buy souvenirs. As an adult, I learned that looking at prize cows, sheep and poultry and watching pigs race for a pan of Oreos was equally entertaining.

The most fun (to me) was viewing the prize winning canned goods - fruits, jams, jellies, preserves - and cakes and pies. Even floral arrangements were awarded blue ribbons. Although most of the fair was winding down (the animals were being removed even as we watched) the cook-off was yet to be decided. This year, it was a beef contest and I had the dubious honor of watching some of the finalists prepare their entries.

The kitchen contained four cooking stations, each equipped with its own range, sink and counter top. Contestants had brought their ingredients and cookware in bags or boxes. A few of them gave me icy stares when I approached their work stations but one seemed willing and even eager for observers and chatted them up. I watched her prepare her prize winning "Mexican Lasagna" (I might have called it tamale pie or enchilada casserole but what do I know). In a 9x13 glass baking dish she layered her sauce, refried beans, corn tortillas, her secret recipe ground beef and her shredded cheese.

I marvelled that she used pre-packaged versions of everything, including pre-shredded cheese. Thrift conscious, I would have opted to shred my own and save a few pennies. Most wondrous of all were her tortillas. I had never seen any like them for sale. They were small - much smaller than the corn tortillas generally available for sale. Those were about six inches in diameter. Here were only four or five inches and they intrigued me. Anything different than we are used to seems inherently more interesting and desirable. (I saw some of these small tortillas for sale in a Chicago Groceria y Carniceria just last week).

She noted my interest and held up her package of tortillas, which were sold six to the pack . The tortillas I routinely purchased were packed no less than a dozen and often 20 or more to a pack. "This is a new kind of Mexican Lasagna noodle" she informed me, in her down-state drawl. "They're called tor-tellas". I nodded and attempted to appear rapt. I knew what they were, having eaten tortillas, tostadas, tamales and tacos nearly all my life, and having made authentic homemade tortillas on more than one occasion.

She finished her ministrations and slid her concoction into the oven to bake. I wandered over to the other stations, hoping to engage the other contestants in similarly scintillating conversation, but they were having none of it. I did not take their aloofness personally and instead wandered about viewing partially eaten pastries and wondering about the criteria for judging.

I have been to a few smaller fairs since, namely the county fair held in Barraboo, WI with Mary on a sisters' weekend, but have never returned to a State Fair. I would love to attend the Iowa State Fair which is often touted as one of the best. I even sent away for the judging guidebook for everything one might enter in the Illinois State Fair. Maybe one year my marmalade will be on display. Maybe I'll win the bake-off! Maybe, but probably not.

Quotable Quotes; in the category Let's Put The 'Fun' Back In Dysfunctional!

"If you ever start feeling like you have the goofiest, craziest, most dysfunctional family in the world, all you have to do is go to a state fair. Because five minutes at the fair, you'll be going, 'you know, we're alright. We are dang near royalty."

Jeff Foxworthy