Monday, January 23, 2006

The New High is Low

In keeping with Sam's Sugar High Fridays, which, for the month of January is asking for desserts low in sugar, here is my offering of no sugar, no fat, low carb vanilla cream with Bosc pears and shaved bittersweet chocolate. I experimented with stevia extract as the sweetener and didn't like it, so went back to using Splenda, which seems to be getting a bit of bad press at the moment.

I've been using variations of this recipe for years. It comes from my first cookbook - The Betty Crocker Cookbook - which my mother gave me when I was about 13 years old. Enjoy this when you have fruit in the house and want a simple and sweet ending to one of your fabulous dinners. It can be made in 15 minutes plus about 10 minutes cooling time.

In a medium saucepan, whisk together 1/3 cup Splenda for baking, 2 tablespoons cornstarch and 1/8 teaspoon salt. In another bowl, whisk 2 cups fat free 1/2 & 1/2 and 1/2 cup egg substitute til blended. Slowly whisk the liquid into the dry ingredients and blend well. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking often to prevent curdling, until mixture comes to a boil. Stirring constantly, boil for 1 minute then remove from heat. Quickly whisk in 2 teaspoons of good vanilla extract plus 1 tablespoon Smart Balance Lite buttery spread. Allow to cool.

Cut a bosc pear into lengthwise quarters, remove the core then slice each quarter in half, again lengthwise. Spoon the cream sauce into a bowl and top with 4 slices of pear. Grate just a bit of good bittersweet chocolate over the pears and cream and serve the dish to your sweetie who can't believe dessert is being served when there was no dessert mere minutes before!

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Birthday Cake. Or, An Ode to Beach Night

How I wish I’d asked Clay to take a photo of it. The cake was beautiful, if I do say so myself. I made it for a Beach Night gathering last Wednesday, where, besides the usual joys of Beach Night, we also celebrated the birthdays of two of our members, E’s and mine.

What is Beach Night, you ask? Well, I'm gonna tell you. Beach Night is a long-standing summer tradition among a group of friends who live up here in this most beautiful of places called The North Coast. We meet on the beach on Wednesday evenings to relax, talk, let the kids run around, have a beer or glass of wine and share dinner. Blankets laden with food are spread out on the sand. A cooking fire is built. Each family brings a dish to share and something to grill. It being strictly potluck, we never know what will be offered. Sometimes we get a delicious dessert. Sometimes we have a plethora of salads and sometimes no salad at all. It’s all part of the fun. After the grilling is finished and dinner consumed, we stoke up the fire, gather ‘round it, and for a while longer continue to bask in the pleasure of our camaraderie, lulled into a quiet appreciation of where we live by the soothing sounds of the ocean waves and the beauty of the setting sun. It’s quite a wonderful thing.

At the end of this past summer, not wanting to give up our weekly gatherings, we decided to keep the tradition going by having each family, in turn, host dinner at their house on a Wednesday night. Sometimes we’ll meet as often as once a week, sometimes a few weeks will go by, but we’ve managed to keep it going and we’re all very pleased it has worked out so well.

Back to last Wednesday. It being the middle of a rainy, windy, muddy, sometimes power-less (as in no electricity), and all together dismal winter, it seems that many of us were of the same mind when we prepared our food to share. I made a white bean and Italian sausage stew with skillet cornbread, D made an Anasazi bean and chorizo stew and blue cornbread, A made two pans of custard cornbread, G made a chili enchilada casserole and Mexican rice with wonderfully hot jalapenos and olives, and E made a hearty pizza. No salads. We laughed over the three different cornbreads and the variation-on-a-theme bean stews. Good, solid, high carb, winter fare. All accompanied by our favorite red wines, of course.

Then came the birthday cake, which is really why I started this post. Dense, bittersweet chocolate; three 8-inch layers worth. Each layer filled with crushed, sweetened raspberries and ever-so-slightly sweetened whipped cream. Frosted with more whipped cream and topped with shavings of bitter-sweet chocolate, it was a sight to behold and, oh my, it was delicious! The recipe for the batter may be found in the February 2006 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

I followed the recipe as written, lowering the brown sugar content from 1 ¾ cups to 1 ½ cups. No low-carb substitutions were made; both the cake and the occasion called for the real thing. Because of the density of the chocolate layers, I decided to lighten up the overall effect by using raspberries and whipped cream. The original recipe calls for a vanilla cream filling and chocolate ganache frosting, but that's another cake for another time.

Topped by flaming rainbow-colored candles, the cake made its entrance into our softly lit dining room to the sounds of the Happy Birthday song. As it was served and the first bites taken, the room grew quiet. And then came that other sound which is so near and dear to my heart: “oooooohhh, yum!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Food Blog Sites I Like

The template I use for Christine Cooks does not have a place to list and link my favorite food blogs. I will be correcting that in the near future, but until then I'd like to list them and their links in this post. Do visit these sites when you have the time. There are so many more than the ones I've listed below. It's quite a community.

Some of my Favorite Blogs, from all manner of recipes, chefs and cookbooks, personal essays, rants and stories to restaurant reviews:

Becks & Posh
Chez Pim
Chocolate & Zucchini
Cook Sister!
Cooking with Amy
Culinary Muse
David Lebovitz
Farm Girl Fare
In Praise of Sardines
Kalyn's Kitchen
Kitchen Review
Leite's Culinaria
Movable Feast
Saute Wednesday
Seattle Bon Vivant
Simply Recipes
The Passionate Cook
Kate Hill's French Kitchen Adventures
Tastes of Humboldt (I started this blog last summer and have yet to follow through. I'm hoping that posting here (going public, as it were) will give me the kick-in-the-butt incentive I need to get a move on.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Story of Pig

He whipped off his baseball cap and scooped her up. She fit neatly inside with room to spare, she was that small. As he looked around for the other one, a part of him was already regretting the snap-second decision. On the other hand, what could he have done? He'd just shot and killed the mother. Unable to locate the other, he stuffed the impossibly tiny, squealing female into his backpack, readied the sow to pack out, hoisted her onto his back and walked out of the hills.

Just earlier, he'd found himself in an impossible situation. Up in the hills, wild boar hunting with his roommate, he'd suddenly come across a boar in a thick patch of brush. Unable to determine the animal's gender, the boar's sudden, menacing rush towards him left him with no way to retreat quickly. Reacting in self-defense, he aimed and pulled the trigger. Only when the sow fell, did he see the two babies. One scurried away into the brush, lost instantly. The other got scooped up into a baseball cap, and so begins the story of Pig.

From his experience in raising hogs for show for an FFA high school project, he knew what to do. He stopped at the farm store on the way home to buy a nursing bottle and milk replacement. He made a bed of straw covered with a cardboard box shelter and set it out on the fenced-in patio of his apartment. Because of the demanding feeding schedule, he brought her to work with him, keeping her cool on the floor of his pickup truck and sometimes in the field beside him in a wire surround so she could get air and sunshine. The rest of the crew at work soon adopted her as their mascot. She was cuddled, bottled fed and well loved.

I first saw Pig when she was about 4 weeks old. My son had me sit on the couch in his apartment, covered me with a blanket from feet to neck, then handed me a bottle. He opened the sliding door to his tiny patio and in streaked this small, squealing, hairless, pink and copper critter who skittered pell-mell across the linoleum floor, righted herself, launched up my blanket-covered legs, latched onto the bottle nipple and proceeded to noisily drain the contents, all in what seemed like 30 seconds. The bottle empty, she melted into my arms and promptly fell asleep, her little piggy legs making small piggy-dream movements as little piggy sounds emitted from her tiny piggy snout. I was smitten; helplessly and hopelessly in love. Undone by the trust this small, motherless, feral creature placed in me to keep her safe while she slept.

Pig thrived and grew. And grew. She outgrew the patio and the apartment. She outgrew the floor of the pickup truck. She upturned the wire surrounds that were to keep her contained at work. And then one day when she was about 3 months old, my son called to ask if Pig could come live with me and my husband. She was no longer a baby and she needed to be safely contained. Putting her back into the wild was out of the question. She had bonded with humans and would not have been safe.

Now, you must understand something: I'm an animal person. I was one of those tom-boys who ran feral in my youth, bringing home any number of stray animals, from lizards to jack rabbits, from a clutch of motherless blue jays to an injured pheasant, and all manner of stray kittens that "followed me home". I grew up racing around on my hands and knees pretending I was a horse. Had the whinny down to a perfect mimicry. Probably in self-defense, my parents got me a horse when I was ten and I continued to own horses until I started having kids. My darling husband, on the other hand, likes cats. Period. Cats are cool. When I knew I was to spend the rest of my life with him, I put into what we jokingly called our "marriage contract", in very small print, that I had to have a horse. He, being madly in love, and most probably in a moment of passion, agreed. To his never-ending chagrin, as it didn't stop there.

So when asked if Pig could come live on our 2+ acres with a horse, 3 dogs, 4 cats, 2 turkeys and a small flock of chickens, in my mind it was already a done deal. We had the room. We could outfit one of the carport bays as an enclosure. What was the problem? The horse already had the adjacent carport bay. We didn't keep our cars in them. Pig and the horse would keep each other company. The look on Clay's long-suffering face as I rattled off these points was painfully comical. His protestations defeated before he could utter a word. I'm sure, then and there, he must have realized just what my parents went through.

Pig came to live with us the next weekend. By that time she weighed about 40 pounds. Wild boars do not normally put on weight in the same way that domestic pigs do. They have to be leaner (and meaner), thus quicker, in the wild to survive. Pig was quick. She could scurry from one side of her new stall to the other in the wink of an eye. She was also a bit daunting. She had small, sharp teeth and could, and would, playfully albeit painfully, nip. Sharp, tusk-like teeth grew from her lower jaw. Her favorite show of affection was to swing her massive head to the side and hit me at about the knee. I grew painfully aware that I would have to be very careful when in her pen. I also had to remind myself that this was no domestic pig, no matter that she lived in a domestic environment. She was what is called a feral pig; her ancestry being wild boar crossed with an escaped domestic pig, many years back in her lineage. Her head was huge and her snout was very, very long. She had beautiful, thick, coarse, copper and sable-colored hair down her back. And, she could talk.

Pig was a very vocal animal. It was only when she was in a deep sleep that she wasn't talking about one thing or another. She would grunt and squeal as she re-arranged her "furniture" on a daily basis. She would talk to the horse in the stall next to her. I caught them once in a conversation wherein my lovely Arab mare was looking over the stall fence at Pig and Pig was looking up at the mare. They were both engaged in a comical "conversation" of equine nickering and porcine grunting.

In her stall, Pig had a heavy wooden structure with 2 steps that measured about 3 feet wide by 2 & 1/2 feet tall. She also had a heavy wooden box shelter that she could burrow into and toys that she couldn't bite to pieces, one such being a large, heavy rubber ball. (Note the use of the word heavy - a key element in mitigating destruction by a feral pig.) She loved to dig holes, some of them quite deep wherein she would deposit a toy, her ball or even her steps. Each day she would rearrange her furniture amid sounds of wild squeals and grunts, digging a hole or two only to cover them up and dig another elsewhere.

During the first few months living with us, I would put a dog harness on Pig, snap a leash to it and open her gate. Instantly we were off and running, Pig squealing with what I interpreted as delight and me whooping and laughing behind her, being pulled this way and that, sometimes at a dead run. Those days were not to last. She grew daily and soon outgrew the harness, then another, then another. One day she was just too large and too strong for me to handle and her running days were over. I thought of letting her roam in the yard, but that idea was nipped in the bud when she immediately ran under the fence, down the road and onto the county road at the bottom of our lane, with me rapidly in pursuit. After stopping traffic in both directions for about 15 minutes, amid some hilarity from the drivers, I finally was able to get a rope on her and pursuade her to come home.

I mentioned that Pig talked. She had a voice for every part of her life but the voice she used when she heard mine was different from any other. I cannot describe it well, but it was different. Softer with a kind of sing-song lilt to it. When she had grown way too large for me to safely enter her pen (over 150 lbs. at this point), I would kneel outside the gate and reach my hand through the rails. Pig would come over and lie down next to the gate, rolling over so I could scratch her belly, the contented grunts and warbles in her sing-song voice creating a constant chatter.

A year and some months passed and Pig eventually weighed over 200 pounds though she wasn't overfed. Because of her sedentary life she put on weight like a domestic pig and I believe that these excess pounds took their toll on her. She developed what seemed to be neurological problems along her spine. One of her hind legs would periodically give way and she wouldn't be able to stand. She also developed a way of holding her head off to one side as though a muscle was in spasm. Finally, I had to admit that she wasn't a very happy pig anymore and I started looking for an animal sanctuary where she might have more room to roam, lose weight and be with other pigs. I searched the Internet, I made phone calls, I talked to veterinarians. No one wanted to take a pig. The animal sanctuaries, as far away as Tennessee, took all sorts of farm animals except pigs because their digging is so destructive to the land. Another year went by and I still hadn't found a suitable place for her. I had already dismissed the idea of giving her to an independent farmer as I couldn't be assured that she wouldn't come to harm. Her lameness became more and more pronounced and she fell down more and more often.

Not wanting her to suffer anymore, I slowly and painfully came to consider the idea of humanely ending her life. I called around to local butchers but not one of them would come out to our property to do the job. I would have to bring her to their place of business to a holding pen where she would be handled like any other meat animal: waiting to be herded into a chute, the smell of blood and fear all around, and then get "knocked" on the head, followed by being stuck in the carotid artery with a long, sharp knife-like instrument, after which she would bleed to death on the ground. I couldn't do it.

More months passed. Pig's lameness became so acute that she spent most of the day laying down and when she did get up it was with tremendous effort on her part. In the end, I came to the conclusion that since we were responsible for the state of Pig's life, we had to be equally responsible for ending it ourselves. I talked to my son, then in vet school, and asked if he would come up the following weekend to humanely put Pig out of her misery. He arrived on a Friday afternoon while I was still at work and, after scratching her belly for a while and talking softly to her, he shot her in the head. She didn't know a thing. One minute she was grunting contentedly and the next she was dead. Just like that.

My son and my husband worked quickly to gut, skin and hang her carcass so that when I got home from work, all the "messy" stuff had been dealt with and disposed of. Painful as it was to me, knowing she was to be killed, seeing her carcass hanging there didn't have the impact on me that I'd been expecting. This was a carcass, not Pig. After it hung for 24 hours, we spent an afternoon, well into the evening cutting and wrapping the meat. We wrapped shoulder and loin roasts and cut the rest up into stewing pieces. We saved tremendous amounts of fat to render into lard. And for the next year we ate Pig's meat, sharing it with our friends and neighbors, always acknowledging where our bounty came from and carrying her memory inside of us.

So that's the story of Pig. To this day I can hear her soft grunts and warbles as she spoke to me. I can see her looking at me with her deep, brown, intelligent eyes. And I will be forever grateful for having been a part of her life. Will I ever raise a pig again? It's highly unlikely.

(This was written because I had to get it out of my head, but also because I was inspired by Kate Hill's post from across the pond at Kate Hill's French Kitchen Adventures. Do visit her site. She's an amazing woman.)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Low Carb Cherry Almond Clafoutis

Kalyn over at Kalyn’s Kitchen is posting low carb recipes for the month of January. Sam at Becks and Posh has declared January low-sugar month for Sugar High (NOT) Friday #15. So when I found some plump, very purple Bing cherries from Chile the other day, I decided to play with my cherry clafoutis recipe to see if I could lower the carbs by omitting sugar and adding ground almonds in place of some of the flour.

Using Splenda, fat free half & half, almond meal from Trader Joes and Smart Balance , the carbs are very minimal and the protein content has been boosted by the addition of the nut flour. In other iterations of this recipe I have gone so far as to use an egg substitute, which worked surprisingly well, but I decided to use real eggs here as creating food that has cherries, vanilla extract and flour as the only real food items is a bit extreme even for me.

This dessert is very satisfying. I eat low carb and low fat and exercise and, simply put, need more than a piece of fruit at times to satisfy my craving for something substantial and sweet. That said, if omitting so many natural ingredients is too much for you, I’ve included the real thing (in parentheses) in the ingredients list. If you stop to consider, 1/3 cup of sugar in all that batter is not very much for one dessert.) For those wanting to know a bit more about Splenda, there are two web sites you can visit, one pro-Splenda and one, while not anti-Splenda per se, takes a cautious approach. If you want to read about all the Splenda nay-sayers, just Google "Splenda", you'll get all the reading material you could possibly want.

In this go ‘round, the clafoutis batter got a bit discolored by the juicy cherries. I don’t know if it was due to the batch of cherries, being very purple, or if it was a reaction to the almond meal. I’ve never had it happen before. One thing you can do to mitigate some of the purple is to leave the pits in the cherries, as is done in some parts of France. I would imagine it may be a bit daunting to eat though. Enjoy!

Low-Carb Cherry Almond Clafoutis
Christine's Original Recipe

(regular ingredients appear in parentheses)
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
1 tablespoon Smart Balance (1 tablespoon butter), liberally butter a 7 ½” x 11” x 2” ceramic dish.
3 cups, packed, Bing cherries, washed and pitted, stems removed
3 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 1/4 cup fat free 1/2 & 1/2 (1 cup whole milk plus 1/4 cup heavy cream)
2 teaspoons good vanilla with no sugar added (read the label!)
1/3 cup Splenda (1/3 cup sugar)
Scant pinch Kosher salt
1/3 cup almond meal
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (2/3 cup flour, omitting the almond meal)

In a bowl, combine eggs, 1/2 & 1/2, vanilla, Splenda and salt and whisk with a hand held mixer until blended. Add the almond meal and the flour and whisk until smooth and lump free.
Pour 1/4 cup of the batter in the buttered dish. Arrange the cherries in a single layer atop the batter. They may be packed together closely. Pour the rest of the batter over the cherries, shaking the dish gently to let the batter settle a bit.
Place in the 350 oven for about 35 – 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool just a bit. This is best when served slightly warm with a bit of fat free 1/2 & 1/2 or lightly whisked, unsweetened heavy cream poured over the top, but it’s also good at room temperature and straight out of the fridge the next day. Although by then it may have become even more purple!

Monday, January 9, 2006

Low Carb January!

Elise over at Simply Recipes has declared January to be a low carb month. Sam at Becks & Posh is asking for low sugar desserts in her Sugar Low Friday this month. And Kalyn at Kalyn's Kitchen is featuring phase one recipes from the South Beach Diet in the first two weeks of January. Right up my alley! I'll be posting two desserts, a persimmon flan and a cherry clafouti, featuring low to no sugar, low fat and, hopefully, downsizing the use of flour. I'm busy in the kitchen working on a flour substitute for the clafouti. Check back before the month is over.