June 28, 2012

Passion Fruit and Rose Water Mocktail

This is incredibly easy and refreshing!  With the hot summer weather, I love flavorful non-alcoholic drinks- like mango and mint lemonade, fruit tea, and I thought, why not a mocktail with passion fruit?  I love passion fruit and the summer weather is a perfect occasion for it!  You may not have worked with passion fruit before, they have a wonderful flavor.  Their drawback, though, is that they are a little labor intensive to get the juice from and their yield is quite low.  But, with a little bit of time and effort, the reward is worth it!  You might think a tropical fruit like this is very sweet, but that is not the case.  You'll most likely find that it's tart and adding a little sugar makes it just right.  This mocktail adds a little bit of sugar and also some rose water.

Passion Fruit and Rose Water Mocktail
6 (or more) passion fruits
1/2 tsp rose water
1 tsp sugar
seltzer (chilled)

This yielded a little over 1/3 of a cup of passion fruit juice, or about enough for 4 drinks (each drink used 2 oz. of passion fruit juice).  First, I rinsed the passion fruit, then, I cut each in half.  You'll see the inside has seeds that are covered in sort of sacks of juice.  I used a grapefruit spoon to scrape all the seeds and pulp into a measuring cup.  I like to use grapefruit spoons for all sorts of things, they are good for this and also incredibly handy for getting the flesh out of avocados.

I used a chinois, the contraption you see here in the picture, it is a narrow, vertical mesh sieve with a sort of pestle to help you squeeze as much liquid as possible out of semi-solids.  Before you pour the passion fruit insides into the chinois, place a bowl or measuring cup underneath.  Liquid will immediately start flowing just from the weight of the seeds on one another.  Use the pestle to extract as much juice as possible.  For 6 medium sized passion fruits, I got about 1/3 cup of juice.  For this amount, I added 1/2 tsp rose water and 1 tsp of sugar.  Stir to dissolve the sugar.      

In a small cocktail glass of your choice, the one in the picture is a champagne saucer that holds roughly 8 ounces, combine 2 ounces each of the passion fruit liquid and the chilled seltzer.  Enjoy!  This would make a festive start to a dinner party.  I'm sure you can substitute a lovely champagne or prosecco for the seltzer and that would be delicious as well.  As a nursing mom, with limited opportunity to drink at the moment, I will have to wait and try that a little later!

June 24, 2012

Chicken Salad with Cherries

I love a good chicken salad- but a really good one- with high quality fresh chicken and a lot of other wonderful ingredients, including some fresh fruit.  I was recently inspired by the beautiful fresh cherries that are in stores right now, not only are they gorgeous, they are absolutely delicious, too!  I like chicken salad that has grapes, so I thought, why not cherries?!  The result is terrific- we took it to the beach for a picnic with some friends!

Chicken Salad with Cherries
1 cup chopped celery
25 cherries (red), pitted and cut into small pieces (a little less than 2 cups once chopped)
1/2 cup walnuts, roasted at 350 degrees for 12 minutes, then chopped
1 8 oz. can on water chestnuts, drained, rinsed, then chopped
1 3/4 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts (roughly 3 halves)
1 cup mayonnaise (Duke's first choice, Hellman's second)
2 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 1/4 tsp curry powder
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

I made this in stages, leaving the chicken for last.  First, I got my cherries ready.  We have a cherry pitter, do you have one of these?  I think, although I am not 100% sure, that you can also use your cherry pitter to pit olives, although I would assume the olives have to be on the larger side.  Anyhow, this is one of those things that you register for for your wedding and then you are surprised at how much you actually use it!  I can still remember who got our cherry pitter for us and it's nice, you think about them when you use it, I really, really like that about registry gifts (or gifts in general), it's a sweet way to feel connected to your friends and family community.

Anyhow, go ahead and pit your cherries.  I will warn you, though, this will be a messy process.  They spray!  I would recommend wearing an apron or something black when you pit them, otherwise, I have no idea if cherry juice comes out of clothes easily...  Once they are pitted, cut them into small pieces.  Go ahead and chop the celery and water chestnuts as well.  Why roast the walnuts, you might ask?  It really improves the flavor.  You don't absolutely have to, but give it a try and you might agree the flavor is a little more lovely.

You may add all the ingredients together except the chicken, we'll need to prepare the chicken before we add it to the salad.  Once the other ingredients are combined, refrigerate them while you prepare the chicken.  I cut each chicken breast half into three pieces, but cut horizontally, like a deck of cards, instead of into three strips.  This gives you flatter pieces with more surface area, the purpose of which is to get more flavor onto the surface area.  Heat some olive oil in a pan on the stove over medium to medium high heat.  My stove probably is medium high heat even at the medium setting, it's just a crazy, crazy stove.  It's an old Viking and when the burners first light, it is seriously like a fireball- keep all loose hair and clothing away!  It's a little nerve wracking...  Anyhow, while the oil heats in the pan, put ample amounts of freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt on the chicken.  You really only have to do one side while they are waiting on the cutting board, you can then place them salt and peppered side down in the pan and then while in the pan complete the other side, neat huh?  You'll most likely need to cook them in 2-3 batches, depending on the size of your pan.  Cook them all the way through and you'll notice there is some very nice browning on the outside, this is what you want.  Add more olive oil as needed during the cooking of the batches.

Make sure your chicken is cooked thoroughly, if not and you don't want to put it back in the pan, just finish it in the microwave so it's safe.  Go ahead and chop the chicken into small pieces and incorporate into the salad.  Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.  Also, if your curry powder is either kind of old or not too strong, adjust that as well.  If you're nervous about that flavor to begin with, start with a 1/2 tsp and work up to an amount that you like.

We LOVE this salad on either cranberry pecan bread, which is sold at most whole foods, and, if you are near a Le Pain Quotidien, their whole grain raisin bread is also a delicious option.  I am sure plain white bread would also be delicious and would really let the chicken salad shine.

Our lovely beach picnic this morning included my pimento cheese, served with celery sticks and club crackers, yum!  The pimento cheese recipe may be found in this post, link below:


Our cherry pitter is from Williams Sonoma:


I can also not say enough good things about a sunscreen we started using recently, it's Kiss my Face sunscreen sun spray lotion, spf 30.  Here's my usual beef with sunscreens- some of them have the consistency of toothpaste and it's literally impossible to get them successfully on a squirmy toddler.  I don't particularly like the spray kind- I mean the aerosol cans, I don't like the smell and I feel like I am going to asphyxiate while I apply it.  This is a spray, but not an aerosol spray, and it's consistency is pretty liquid, so it spreads evenly.  Finally, and perhaps the most important, it dries and soaks into the skin pretty quickly, so your total time sunscreening is greatly reduced.  I am so over waiting for my sunscreen to dry!  Anyhow, we're really fair and we've been very happy with this sunscreen.  You can get it at whole foods or order it from drugstore.com:


June 19, 2012

How to Make Your Own Grape Leaves

I love grape leaves!  But, I don't just love them because they are delicious.  I love them because they remind me of my childhood.  We're not Greek, but before my sister and I were born, my parents went on several cruises through the Greek isles.  The food must have stuck with them, because for as long as I can remember, greek salad in pita bread was a standard weeknight meal we probably ate at least once a month, greek olives were always on hand, and when I was small, I can remember my Dad making meat stuffed grape leaves and teaching me how to fold them.  I can't remember not knowing how to fold them.  But, the grape leaves we made and ate at home were different that the typical grape leaves you can buy at the store or order in a restaurant.  It seems that most grape leaves are rice filled, which, don't get me wrong, are absolutely delicious.  What we made and ate, though, were meat filled and simmered in a combination of tomato and lemon, giving them a completely different flavor.  I made some this past Sunday afternoon and have been enjoying them ever since!

Grape Leaves
1 1/2 lb. ground lamb
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced or put through a press
3 Tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
2 Tbsp chopped fresh mint
1 1/2 Tbsp chopped fresh dill
2 tsp sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup uncooked Jasmine rice
3 Tbsp tart dried cherries, measured, then chopped

2 bottles grape vine leaves

4 or more cups of water
juice of 1/2 or 1 lemon
1 or 2 8 oz. cans of tomato sauce

First, assemble the filling.  In a medium bowl, mix together the filling ingredients.  The tart dried cherries are a tribute to one of my favorite Persian dishes, rice with sour cherries, yum!  When my Dad makes these, sometimes he adds pine nuts and dried apricots.  For this amount of filling, I think you'll need between 1 1/2 to 2 jars of grape leaves.  If you're unfamiliar with grape leaves, you can buy them at the supermarket, they'll probably be near the bottled olives.  Remove them gently from the jars and rinse them with water, they'll most likely be packed in a brine that you'll want to gently rinse, but you don't have to be extremely thorough. Because they are wet, using a colander may be helpful for the leaves.  Separate them, they'll be delicate, and do your best not to tear them.  Some may already be a little imperfect, either having holes or tears, set these aside, they have their uses, too.

To fill them, take a grape leaf and lay it on your folding surface, with the interior of the leaf facing you.  If there is still a stem attached at the bottom, just pinch it with your fingers to remove.  Place a small amount of filling near the base of the leaf.  Your first step in folding is pulling the bottom portion over the filling, as shown in the picture.  Next, you fold in the sides.  Depending on the width and shape of the leaf, you may need to also fold in the sides of the top of the leaf.  Finally, your last step is to roll the grape leaf forward toward the top of the leaf.  Look at that!  How wonderful does that look?

Folding your grape leaves is lots of fun, why not teach your children how to do it and do it together as an activity?  Our son is a little too young for this, but when he's ready, I look forward to cooking in the kitchen with him.  He's not yet too interested in cooking, mostly he's interested in eating what I'm making!  We did make chex mix together once, mostly, though, he ate it while we were making it, but good helping nonetheless!

I used a Le Creuset dutch oven to cook these, but really, any pot with a lid that will go on top of the stove will do just fine.  First, remember the imperfect grape leaves we talked about?  Torn pieces and leaves with holes?  Use those to line the bottom of the pot, so the grape leaves you've so lovingly folded don't stick to the bottom and come apart.  Next, place your folded grape leaves, with the opening on the bottom, in layers in the pot.  This next part will depend on how many grape leaves you're making and the dimensions of your pot.  Add water until it's partially covering the top layer of grape leaves.  Then, pour over one or more cans of tomato sauce.  Next, squeeze 1/2 to 1 lemon over the whole pot.  Cover with the lid.  Simmer on the stove, covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, checking to see if more water is needed.  Test a grape leaf to see that the meat and rice are completely cooked.  You may enjoy these right away, a delicious accompaniment is greek style yogurt, either plain or mixed with dill, garlic and lemon juice.  Or, you may refrigerate them and then reheat them as you eat them.  I think you'll find these a savory, tasty treat!

On the cruises that my parents went on, my Grandmother went on one as well.  While on the trip, she acquired a gold coin, which she had made into a necklace pendant, which she gave to me.  Making these prompted me to pull it out of the jewelry box and wear it while I enjoyed them!

June 13, 2012

Tacos with Slow Cooked Ancho Chile Brisket and Avocado Salsa

These are not only tasty, but you can make them ahead of time!  Who doesn't love that?  Plus, because the salsa is made in a blender, you don't have to spend time chopping the ingredients.  Ditto for the brisket sauce, you use a slow cooker for the brisket and you just throw the seasonings in the crock pot.  Very, very low prep time!  Then, when it's time to serve them, you just heat up some tortillas, shred and heat the meat, top with the salsa and enjoy!

Let's start with the Avocado Salsa.  This is like a guacamole, but so much more!  It's heavy on the avocados, but it also includes tomatillos, so it's not quite as thick and creamy as guacamole.  Plus, it has a hearty helping of lime, not only in the lime juice but also in lime zest, so it's got a fresh, bright taste.  This is wonderful paired with this brisket, or as a salsa with chips.

Avocado Salsa
3 tomatillos
2 medium avocados
1/2 serrano chile pepper (with seeds)
1 large garlic clove
1 1/2 oz. shallot
zest of 1/2 lime
1 1/2 Tbsp lime juice (fresh squeezed)
6 fresh mint leaves
1 1/2 Tbsp cilantro leaves
1/4 cup water (possibly a touch more if your avocados are large)
1 tsp sea salt
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper

Assemble the ingredients and add to your blender.  Save the avocado for last, since you want to prevent browning.  Did you know that lime juice prevents the avocados from browning?  Blend, if your blender seems to be getting stuck, consider tapping the sides lightly or adding more water.  You want it somewhat thick, but not so thick that a) you can't blend it and b) it won't be a good consistency.  I store it in a glass ball jar in the refrigerator.  Enjoy as a taco topping or with some chips!

Ancho Chile Brisket
2 1/4 beef brisket (trimmed of excess fat)
2 whole ancho chiles
1 medium yellow onion, cut into rough chunks
2 garlic cloves (peeled, left whole)
1/2 stick cinnamon
1 whole clove
1 Tbsp ground coffee
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp sea salt
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup lime juice (fresh squeezed)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 cup red wine
1 6 oz. can tomato paste

In a slow cooker (hooray for crock pots!) place all of the ingredients except the brisket.  Turn the power on, select low heat for an 8 hour period.  The heat will start and you'll need it to help the tomato paste dissolve into the other liquids.  While that's happening, trim any excess fat off your brisket.  Cut the brisket into about 6 pieces and once the tomato paste has dissolved sufficiently, place the brisket in the mixture.  Using a fork, arrange all the ingredients so that the brisket, chiles and other large pieces are at least partially covered with liquid.  Place the cover on the slow cooker and let it go for 8 hours!

After it's cooked for 8 hours, shred the meat, mix with some of the sauce, and serve with warm tortillas and the Avocado Salsa.  If you don't plan to eat it right away, just place the meat and sauce in a container together and refrigerate.  When you are shredding the meat and mixing in some sauce, you'll need to taste it as you go along.  You may find you like more or less sauce.

I hope this helps you have a nice meal without a lot of active cooking time!  We enjoyed it this week and I was able to make it fairly quickly while both kiddos were in the den.

June 9, 2012

Gardening 2.0

Although we've recently moved and just had a new baby, I still have hopes and dreams of having a little bit of gardening in our lives this spring and summer.  However, my plans are much less grand than last year- for a few reasons.  First of all, our little girl is not quite yet 5 weeks old and the 2 1/2 year old is quite a workout!  Secondly, we are now renting our house, so doing things like installing our own garden beds in the backyard is not really feasible.  But I am undaunted!  I will not let these things (completely) thwart my dreams of homegrown heirloom tomatoes, hot peppers and fresh herbs!

My Father (here he is with the new baby) is quite a gifted gardener, he grows all sorts of things, arugula, herbs, even a fig tree, which, this year, he pledges to guard more closely against bird thieves.  What I truly love, though, about my Dad's gardening, is that it is much more free form and creative than mine- I planned those garden beds last year within an inch of their lives and meticulously germinated and transplanted things like a train schedule (I'm told my control freak side is occasionally endearing), whereas, my Dad actually has a section of his garden that is designated for 'volunteers.'  This very well describes what is so great about my Dad, his point of view can be so unique.  His 'volunteers' are plants that grow from the compost added to the pots.  An example 'volunteer' could be the seed of a melon my parents enjoyed for breakfast one day, that has now decided to sprout and bloom.  And that's a 'volunteer,' love it!

Anyhow, my father was visiting about six weeks ago, and he helped me plan and get started on this year's gardening project.  The house we are renting has a screened in porch which gets a fair amount of sun.  My Dad suggested this be the location of the pots and planters, which is terrific, because we will have even more competition from the wildlife here in terms of our gardening than we did down South.  This is solely because our yard up here isn't fenced, and we have deer stroll through the backyard, actually, we have everyone you can think of stroll through the backyard, two days ago a fox leisurely walked across the patio, which drove Pele, our Pudelpointer, completely bonkers.  I think I even saw an owl circling earlier this week.  Anyhow, you may recall that although I created what I thought was a fairly substantial barrier over the garden beds, using PVC pipes, zip ties and heavy black plastic mesh, raccoons found a way to make holes and climb in and get most of the wonderful things we grew!  Foo.  So, a screened in porch where no animals can get in sounds pretty good to me!

We germinated what we hoped to grow in zip lock bags with moist paper towels.  I selected a few tomato varieties, but the only viable plants I've gotten are speckled roman tomatoes and green zebra tomatoes, my san marzano and cherokee purple didn't fair as well.  We also have a viable parsley plant (flat leaf), a sweet orange bell pepper plant, and a serrano chile plant.  (On the 'volunteer' front, while my dad was here, he planted the roots from some scallions we used cooking in the kitchen and they are doing pretty well!  Check them out in the picture!)  Did you know that onion varieties are members of the lily family?  The seeds we used I bought the previous spring and kept them in a zip lock bag inside the house (in air conditioning).  Your seeds will keep for a while if you keep them at a cool temperature and moisture free.  If you live in a warm place without air conditioning, just put them in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Yesterday, I transplanted a speckled roman tomato seedling into a large pot (I know the pot seems crazy big now, but wait until this tomato plant reaches about 4 feet and needs a cage!) and a parsley seedling with a beautiful little parsley shaped leaf into a larger pot.  In the next week, I'll also transplant a green zebra tomato seedling, the serrano chile plant, and the sweet orange bell pepper.  All of the seeds I am using came from Botanical Interests, which has a website: http://www.botanicalinterests.com/ but they are also sold at Whole Foods (but, the selection will vary from store to store).  You may also buy plants for your gardening ambitions, which is absolutely great, too.  Why do I like to grow them from seeds?  First of all, your selection of things to grow is so much more diverse- I am not going to be able to find plants of speckled roman or green zebra tomatoes anywhere- nor will you be able to definitively determine the use or non use of chemicals- and since I plan to eat these and feed them to my babies, I like them as chemical free as I can get (I use organic soil and no commercial fertilizer).  Finally, and probably the most joyful part of the experience, seeing these plants grow from a tiny seed into something that is not only beautiful, but gives you jewel like fruits is simply divine!

I wish you happy and beautiful gardening this summer, no matter how you go about it!

For more La Dolce Duchessa gardening posts, look here!

June 2, 2012

Hand Knitted and Hand Sewn Baby Wardrobe!

I have been LOVING knitting and sewing things lately!  Making them in anticipation of our baby girl was so, so much fun.  I'd love to share them with you!

This is a mint green hooded sweater, my first project.  Instead of buttons, I used ribbon ties, which I think look great.  The ends of ribbon may be easily finished by melting them ever so gently with a match- a trick I learned as a ballet dancer in my teens- you didn't want the ends of your pointe shoe ribbons unravelling!  Just be careful not to melt it too much, it can turn a darker color than the ribbon.  If you're nervous about this step, practice on a spare piece of ribbon.  This yarn is just acrylic baby yarn, I think the brand was Bernat.

This set is a bonnet and a pair of scratch mitts, the bonnet has a seed stitch border around the face and a simple stockinette stitch for the main portion.  The scratch mitts have a seed stitch wrist border and a moss stitch for the hands.  I thought this lovely pink looked great with this turquoise blue!  This is a cotton yarn.  I primarily like to use knitting needles made of bamboo, they don't 'slip' as much as metal needles (which, with some soft silky yarns are nearly impossible to use!!!).  These were made with cotton yarn by Patons.

Ah, booties :)  Booties are really a great beginning project because they will take you very little time- I have made one bootie watching television in the evening and the next the next night.  The blue pair, this yarn is really, really gorgeous.  It is from Italy and while you can't see it too well in the picture, it has some metallic aspects to it and a fuzziness that is a little like mohair.  I got this yarn at The Cashmere Goat in Camden, Maine last summer.  The pink pair is made from acrylic baby yarn.  The very thin ribbon I have used on both pairs of booties is very handy, you can thread it through pretty much any stitch without having to form eyelet holes in your knitting.  Just use a large enough embroidery needle or a needle you use to sew knitting pieces together (these are plastic).  To make your bows stay put, though, you will most likely want to tack them down with a little bit of thread.

This one is my husband's favorite!  This little a line jacket with pink ribbon is just so sweet.  The border at the bottom is garter stitch, the bottom part of the body is stockinette, and the bodice is a seed stitch.  The buttons are just small pearly-looking plastic buttons.  For a jacket like this, you could omit the ribbon and have much more dramatic buttons, or have it close with ribbons.  This is made from acrylic baby yarn, I think Bernat was the brand.

This one I am especially proud of!  This is a wrap sweater that ties with a ribbon in back that incorporates a lace knitting design that resembles feathers.  It involves knitting four stitches together, which was difficult to master at first, but I got the hang of it!  The background is purled and the borders are seed stitch.  (Yes, I love seed stitch!)  I love this design, I am in the process of making another sweater in a green yarn that has a climbing vine lace design.  (Yes, I love lace knitting, too!)

Now, I love knitting, but I also love sewing, too.  However, I will say this about knitting, it's more portable- I have knitted in the waiting room at doctors' appointments, at the car dealership, etc., which, you can't do as much with your sewing projects.  Sewing is a bit messier, too, the pieces of thread and scraps of fabric, and you need a table and a work area for your sewing machine.  With knitting, you can do it nearly anywhere, and all you need is your yarn and needles.

I was inspired to make our baby girl some things for her nursery, also, I bought some lovely upholstery fabric with coral embroidered on it, and I have made a quilt and also drapes for the nursery.  The quilt took longer than I thought, but I think the effect of the hand stitching around the embroidery already on the fabric is really lovely!

I have also sewn two day gowns, the first one you saw in our hospital pictures, the pink gingham gown with the smocking was her 'take me home' outfit.  The pink gingham day gown was my first experience with smocking, and although I was initially intimidated by the prospect, now I'm quite confident!  Smocking with a gingham fabric or a patterned fabric helps you by allowing you to use the fabric for the gathering.  Once you've created the gathers, you use embroidery thread to hold the gathers together, either in a basic stitch (like this one) or in something more elaborate (I'll work up to that!).

This day gown does not have smocking, it is just gathered around the neck and has a layer of lace trim.  The sleeves are also banded, whereas the pink day gown had sleeves that were partially smocked.  It is good to make day gowns out of very light fabrics, like batiste.  And, I'd recommend using a poly / cotton blend, because it can easily go through the washer and dryer and not need to be ironed.  I would, though, recommend putting it in a little mesh bag to go through the washer, especially if it has a lot of delicate embroidery, you wouldn't want it to get damaged going through the wash.  I know it seems counter intuitive to use a poly / cotton blend instead of a nice, high quality cotton, but, it's up to you how much time you'd like to spend ironing!  I am not in love with ironing, so I use poly / cotton!

This is one of my current projects, it is a white day gown.  I have created a guide for making gathers on fabric that doesn't have gingham or a pattern I can follow.  The guide is simply a piece of lightweight cardboard with points that are about 1/4" apart.  I use a fabric marking pencil to make marks on the fabric (both are shown in this picture).  I haven't decided what color embroidery to use in the smocking yet, the white makes it a good background for whatever color I choose!  I might use two colors and do a more elaborate stitch, maybe violet and pale green together, or coral and a beautiful inky blue.  I really, really love to use colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel, particularly orange and blue!

I hope these projects inspire you!  It is not as hard as it looks, and the satisfaction and enjoyment you'll experience are well worth the effort!  And, no one else will have one that is just like it.

For an original La Dolce Duchessa pattern for a Lace Baby Sweater, click below!