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La Petite Maison Verte

La Petite Maison Verte: January 2012

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tangerine Cake

As promised, I wanted to share with you a recipe I made using my epic haul of citrus fruits over the weekend (check out my story of how it came to be, if you haven't read it yet).  This one has been bookmarked for ages and despite the bizarre instructions to boil the fruit whole and then puree it whole: skins, pith and all (!) I had a feeling it would turn out well.  I suppose I just completely trust Nigella Lawson, though God knows why.  Anyone that gorgeous shouldn't be capable of cooking their way out of a paper bag, but every recipe of hers that I've attempted has turned out to be lovely, decadent and worthy of every single one of the adjectives she uses to describe them.

This cake was no exception.  Despite it's unusual method, it's lack of flour and butter (or oil) and my artistic liberties, exchanging tangerines for the clementines called-for, it turned out beautifully.  Incredibly moist and light, yet with satisfying body, this cake made a beautiful dessert, but would be equally as nice served with a cup of tea or to accompany a brunch buffet.  And did I mention, it's Gluten-Free.

Not usually a raw batter-eater, I couldn't resist it this time.  From my little taste I had some serious concerns that it was going to taste bitter when cooked.  And perhaps the aftertaste was just slightly sharp, at first.  Not unpleasant though, in fact we delighted in every crumb:  it's texture, it's pleasant citrus aroma and unmistakable tangerine-ness

But then something happened.  I can't describe it and I don't know how exactly, but somehow the second day after baking, the cake became even more delicious.  It lost the sharp aftertaste, it mellowed, if you will...

Even if you don't find yourself with a mountain of citrus fruits, this is a beautiful dessert that showcases the best of the Winter produce.  You could even substitute oranges or lemons instead of tangerines or clementines (make sure to up the sugar, per Nigella's recommendations if you use lemons).

Tangerine Cake
adapted from Nigella Lawson
makes one 9-inch cake

3-4 tangerines (375 grams total weight)
6 eggs
225 grams sugar (about 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
250 grams ground almonds (2 1/3 cups; I used Bob's Red Mill Almond meal/flour)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

Place the tangerines in a pot and cover with cold water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 2 hours.  Drain and allow to cool, then slice each tangerine in half horizontally and remove any seeds.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Transfer cooked tangerines and all accumulated juices into the food processor (yep, you're putting them in whole - skins, pith, fruit and all) and blitz until pureed.

Spray a 9-inch springform pan with non-stick baking spray and line with a round of parchment paper, then spray that.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs.  Then add the sugar, almonds and baking powder and mix well.  Add the pureed fruit and stir to combine.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-45 minutes, checking after 20 minutes to see if the top is browning.  If the top of your cake starts to turn dark brown or burn, cover the cake with foil for the remaining time.  The cake is done when a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out dry.  Remove cake from oven and set on a wire rack to cool, allow the cake to cool completely before removing it from the pan.

Serve cake at room temperature, dusted lightly with the powdered sugar.  

Question of the Day

What's your favorite citrus fruit?  What is your preferred way to eat it?

I adore grapefruits!  My favorite way to eat them is simply sliced in half and eaten with a spoon, although lately we've been coming up with creative ways to incorporate them into ev-ery-thing:  sliced on top of salads, pureed into smoothies and juiced for salad vinaigrette.


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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tangerine Dream

We came into a citrus windfall yesterday.  Today, even after sharing a generous bag of tangerines and grapefruits with our friends Jen and Leah, 8 grapefruits and 17 tangerines remained.  I have a recipe to share soon, but first a little about how we came into such a fortune....

Walking home from The Fresh Market yesterday morning, Brian and I passed by a house with 4 or 5 fruit-laden citrus trees in the backyard.  We've passed by many times and I had only seen an elderly woman outside the house once.  It seemed that no one had been picking the fruit, as the trees have been full for weeks, so we knocked on the door to ask if we might take some.  A frail old woman answered and said we could help ourselves to tangerines, on the condition that we pick two bags of 2-dozen for her, and we could have 2-dozen as well.  We were the rare passers-by that asked before taking the fruit, she observed, Southern manners aren't what they used to be.  

We happily obliged and set to work, Helen instructing us in the best way to pick the fruit to avoid tearing the delicate skin.  The tangerines were late this year, she said matter-of-factly, they are usually all finished by Christmas.  Growing up not far from here, her father owned groves of citrus, she remembered.  Those fields are now subdivisions and strip malls, a Lowe's stands where acres of grapefruit trees once bore fruit.

These trees, never tainted by pesticides or chemicals, have been here more than 30 years, Helen told us.  Neglected nowadays she admitted, due to her old age and several recent falls.  She has no one to pick the fruit she said, and cannot eat grapefruits anymore - a compound in them would render her blood pressure medication inactive.  She will eat some of the tangerines we picked, and share the rest with neighborhood children.  The other bag will go to the halfway house where her daughter lives, the residents appreciate the rare opportunity to eat fresh fruit she told us.    

Towering high above us, accessible only by a ladder, clusters of the largest and ripest tangerines hung like grapes, their bright orange like a fiery sun against the blue sky.  Those were the ones we wanted and they taunted us as we climbed, teetering and unsteady but hungry for their sweetness.  Six dozen tangerines were picked in no time, and divided among the three bags.

Did we want grapefruits, asked Helen.  Our eyes became as large as those butter-colored orbs and our gaze drifted to where they hung from the overburdened limbs of the neighboring tree.  Thoughts of fresh-squeezed juice and smoothies, perhaps a greyhound cocktail?  Yes, but the first one would be eaten plain, sliced through its center and eaten with a spoon out of the convenient bowl-shaped half.  She filled a bag with 12 of them.  These here, these are filled with seeds, Helen warned, but they taste the best, the others are pale pink on the inside.

The mile walk home was hurried, as the bag handles seared their imprint into our hands, still fragrant with the citrus oils.  Our bags were heavy with the ripe fruits, their pock-marked skins in shades of golds and glowing embers.  Brian and I talked excitedly of our good fortune and we planned out what to do with such abundance.  Before we had left her house, Helen had invited us to return next Saturday to pick more fruit.  The thought came to us that we couldn't possibly use more, but we will go back.  Not for ourselves but rather for Helen.  I think she would like that.



Saturday, January 28, 2012

Resolutions Progress

I thought this would be a good time to bring up my New Year's Resolutions again and see how I am doing so far.  Part of remaining accountable is periodically checking in to see how things are going.

I read an article that said one third of the people who have made resolutions will have broken them by the end of January.  This jumps to over half by July.  One strategy the author recommends is self-monitoring, keeping track of your progress, on a frequent basis.  Whether your goal was to lose weight, learn a new language or, like me you had a couple resolutions in mind, the important thing is to periodically check in to see how you're doing.

The article also recommends that you "outsource self-control."  This means you get friends and family, social media, or in my case anyone reading this blog, involved in your resolution.  If you share your progress with other people, you're more likely to stick with it.  If you keep it to yourself, you're more likely to let it lapse since you are only letting one person down, as opposed to many.


For the purpose of reminding myself what I'm hoping to accomplish, I'll paste them here:

Goals for 2012

Run a 10K
Improve my physical strength
Volunteer/Donate my time to a cause I believe in
Write every day
Learn to paint - paint something I would be willing to display in my house
Improve my photography
Make time to read daily
Make a career change
Learn French
Spend more time outdoors (but take better care of my skin!)
Become a better friend/daughter/sister/wife
Explore and share my passions and knowledge with others:  food, wine, health, wellness
Travel somewhere new(destination TBD)

So how are things going so far?  Well, I am happy to report that I've registered for an 8K!  I'm not ready for a 10K but this will be my FIRST organized race and I am well into my training.  Things are going really well so far: I've increased my distance and my speed but I still have more work to do before race day.

Improve my physical strength:  I have also been working on my physical strength, adding 3 days of conditioning every week.  Today was chest and triceps and MAN OH MAN, I was toast by the end.  I am already feeling improvements in my ability to do more push-ups.  I still haven't seen any physical changes in my body but I know it's not going to happen overnight.

Volunteer/Donate my time for a cause I believe in:  Still haven't picked the right opportunity yet.  Will keep you posted when I do.  I really want to find something that I'm passionate about.

Write Every Day:  I am doing better, but still not finding the time every day.  I am writing about 3 or 4 days a week (better than the 0 to 1 days before I made my resolutions), but I am sure I could do better.  

Learn to paint:  Nope.  Still no Picasso.

Improve my photography:  I am working on paying more attention to my photography composition, lighting and just improving my familiarity with the camera and its settings.  It doesn't come easily, so I have a LOT more work to do here.

Make time to read daily:  Still not finding the time to read (for pleasure) on a daily basis, but I finally finished What to Eat (whoohoo!) and I have moved on to a book I got for Christmas.  I'm reading about 3 or 4 days a week.  

Make a Career Change:  Nope.

Learn French:  Nope.  But I have a lead on getting free computer software for a basic French language course. 

Spend time outdoors, take care of my skin:  Yes and No.  Today I noticed tan lines above my ankles from my sneakers and below my knees from my running tights (from running outside).  It helps that the weather here has been GOR-GEOUS lately.  Unfortunately, I haven't been wearing sunscreen except on my face.  Bad Julia, Bad BAD Julia.

Be a better friend/daughter/sister/wife: This will always be a goal, I have good days and bad days.  Sometimes I'm a complete beyotch, other days sweet as pie.  Hoping to decrease the number of bitchy days.

Explore and share my passions/knowledge (nutrition, health/wellness, wine, food):  That's where this blog comes in.  I'm trying to share more and learn more.  I think I'm slowly getting better at adding bits and pieces of things I know, I just don't want to sound preachy.  It's a fine balance, I think.

Travel somewhere new:  This is in the works.  I don't want to mention where we're hoping to travel this year yet because if it falls through (and it surely could) I don't want to disappoint anyone.  Either way, we will be going somewhere new, whether it's near or far.  


Overall, I think I'm doing OK.  Certain areas need some more attention (volunteering, painting, learning French) and other areas are coming along pretty well.  Reflecting on my goals every so often helps to keep them in mind.  A resolution is only as good as your willingness to stick to it.  Let's not forget why we made the resolutions in the first place.

I hope you guys do a self-inventory on your resolutions if you made any this year.  Share your progress on facebook or twitter, or if that's too public for you maybe pick one person to be your accountability-buddy.  It's OK if you have lapsed, it's not too late to pick back up again.  Just remind yourself WHY you made that resolution in the first place, forgive yourself for falling off-course, and try again.



Friday, January 27, 2012

Homemade Blueberry Muffin Larabar Balls

I'm a huge fan of Larabars.  If you've never had one, it's a foil-wrapped bar you can find in the health-foods aisle at the grocery store, made only from dried fruits and nuts, with the occasional addition of flavored extract or salt.  No added sugar, no artificial sweetener, no preservatives.  And they come in about 20 different flavors so the only problem is, for those of us who are terribly indecisive, it can be difficult to figure out which one to choose.  Confession:  I am that crazy person who spends 10 minutes standing in the nutrition-bar aisle looking frazzled because I can't decide between a Pecan Pie or Lemon Larabar.  

I love them because they're a portable snack made from 100% real-food ingredients.  Kind of like trail mix, in snack bar form.  They're the perfect mix of protein, fat and carbohydrates (including fiber) to give me sustained energy before a run or workout-sesh, or if I need to eat something as a snack between meals.  And because they're not loaded with preservatives or artificial sweeteners, I can feel good about eating them.

My favorite flavors are Key Lime Pie (when I can find it!), Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip and Blueberry Muffin, but I've yet to find a flavor I didn't enjoy (and I am pretty sure I have tried most of them).  The great thing about these bars is, they get all of their sweetness* from dates and dried fruit, so even people who  avoid refined sugar or artificial sugars can eat them without any guilt.  They're gluten-free, paleo-friendly and even perfect for raw-food vegans.

*An exception to this is the Larabars that contain chocolate chips.  These do have sugar in the chocolate chips themselves, although the rest of the bar has no added sugar

Occasionally I can find Larabars on sale for $1 each, and when I do you better believe I STOCK UP.  Confession #2 of the day:  I hoard Larabars in my kitchen pantry.  When my stash is gone, however, I get out my mini food-processor and make my own.  Only instead of forming them into bars, I roll them into little balls and wrap them in saran wrap.  I find that 1 ball is the perfect size to eat before a workout or run or during a hike when I just need a little energy but am not starving.  I usually have the ingredients on hand because I think nuts and dried fruit are a great snack, a delicious addition to salads and the perfect topping for my oatmeal or cereal most mornings.  Even if you don't have the ingredients and have to go buy some of them, they still end up costing less if you make them yourself rather than buy them at full price (usually $1.67 or more each at my grocery store).

This recipe makes 5 balls, each ball is approximately the equivalent of 1/2 of a Larabar.  I recommend that you store them in the refrigerator since they lack preservatives.  They'll be fine out of the refrigerator for a few hours (i.e. during a hike, or in your purse running errands) but I wouldn't recommend storing them in the pantry.

I have lots of variations to share but first up is one of my personal favorites:  Blueberry Muffin.

I do NOT recommend this brand of dried blueberries.  When I got them home, I realized they have added sugar!  WTF?!  WHY would you add sugar to (already sweet) fruit?  I'm going back to my dried organic blueberries from the bulk bin at my local health-foods co-op.  

No-Bake Blueberry Fruit & Nut Energy Balls aka. Blueberry Muffin LaraBalls
makes 5 snack-size balls (this recipe can easily be doubled as well)
loosely adapted from Foodbuzz

1/3 cup raw, unsalted cashews or almonds (I use a combination of the two)
1/4 cup pitted dates, roughly chopped
1/4 cup dried blueberries
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract (OR 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice + 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest)

I am a little impatient so I usually just toss all of the dried nuts and both the dates and blueberries into the food processor at the same time and pulse until combined.  Then add my vanilla extract and lemon extract (or lemon juice + zest) and pulse a few more times.  Then, roll the mixture into 5 equal size balls and wrap each, individually, in a piece of plastic wrap.

If you want your Larabar balls to look more like the bar (i.e. larger pieces of blueberries studding the balls), start by adding all of the nuts to the bowl of the food processor.  Pulse until finely chopped, then add the dates and pulse until well combined.  Finally, add in your extracts and the blueberries and pulse 3 or 4 more times, just to combine but keeping the blueberries mostly intact.  Continue rolling into balls and wrapping as above.

Mine:  Purple-ish-blue from pulverizing the heck out of the blueberries.  Theirs:  Brown with big chunks of blueberry throughout.   Taste the same to me! 

Individually-wrapped for snacking on the go.


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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strawberries and Cream Oatmeal

This morning, I was the early-bird.

Only, instead of getting a worm, I got this bowl of strawberries & cream oatmeal.  Pretty good substitute, I think.

Did you ever eat those packets of Instant Oatmeal when you were a kid?  The kind that came in a box with fruit & cream flavors:  peaches, bananas, blueberries, strawberries.  There were only 2 packets of each flavor.  In my house, strawberries & cream was always the first to go....

This version is better than that.  No added sugar or artificial strawberry flavor.  No "creaming agent (maltodextrin, partially-hydrogenated soybean oil)".  My version takes a teensy bit longer to make, about 3 minutes as opposed to 90 seconds for the packaged variety.  But it's that extra minute and a half that makes all the difference:  that's how long it takes to slice up a few strawberries and half a banana.  Real strawberries and a real banana.  The banana is really just there to make this oatmeal sweet enough that I don't need to add any sugar or sweetener.  It's the strawberry flavor that really stands out.

I add half the volume of liquid in the form of unsweetened vanilla almond milk.  Dairy milk (or half & half, or cream) would work perfect too.  That's my idea of a "creaming agent."  And I top mine with chia seeds for extra fiber, antioxidants and Omega-3's.

Strawberries are in season here in Florida, so I used fresh but if you live in part of the country where all you can get are watery, under-ripe strawberries, I'd recommend you go with frozen berries.  Just throw them in whole when you microwave your oatmeal and decrease your amount of liquid a bit too, so it doesn't end up too watery.  They will be very soft once your oatmeal is cooked, at that point you can just cut them up with your spoon.

Strawberries & Cream Oatmeal
serves 1

1/3 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not Instant, *make sure to use certified gluten-free oats if you wish)
1/3 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk (I use Almond Breeze)
1/3 cup (or less) water - amount depends on how liquid-y you like your oatmeal
4 strawberries, diced
1/2 ripe banana, diced

chia seeds, almond butter, granola, additional milk or cream for serving (optional)

In a microwave safe glass or ceramic bowl, combine oatmeal, milk and water.  Add all of the sliced banana and about half of your diced strawberries, stir.  Microwave 90 seconds (up to 2 minutes for softer oats, but I like mine a little chewy).  Let oatmeal stand at room temperature to cool and absorb all of the liquid, about 30 seconds to a minute, then top with remaining strawberries and any other toppings (chia seeds, dollop of almond butter, granola, milk/cream).


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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Superfood" Quinoa Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

This recipe was inspired by a "Superfood Salad" I came across on Pinterest.  As soon as I saw it I knew I had to make it ASAP.  Luckily, I already had all of the main ingredients on hand and what I didn't have, I was able to swap with some other fresh produce from my fruit bowl.  

As beautiful as it is delicious, it's a healthy and satisfying lunch or dinner.  Such a great combination of sweet and tangy yet garlicky (is that really a word?  spell-check isn't correcting it! ha!) and savory at the same time.

I'm always up for trying out a new salad recipe for using Quinoa since it's a super-food AND mighty delicious.  Packing in both protein and fiber, quinoa is a fabulous and versatile grain which you can easily slip into your daily routine in place of rice, couscous or other carbohydrates that aren't as nutrient-dense.  Heads up, quinoa can have a bitter taste to it if not prepared correctly so it is very important to rinse it well with water before cooking.  See my instructions below for cooking quinoa perfectly every time (Credit to Jenn of Peas & Crayons for the flawless quinoa cooking technique!).

The original recipe calls for you to prepare your quinoa, cool it and then mix in a homemade lemon vinaigrette dressing along with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables:  red onion, oranges, avocado, black beans, pomegranate seeds, corn and cilantro.  I substituted sliced green onions for the red, clementines for the oranges and ripe strawberries for the pomegranate seeds (Strawberries are ALREADY in season in Florida, hence the reason I had some.  One more reason to love living here!).  I think grapefruit would also make a delicious citrus substitution and I'll bet blueberries would be DIVINE instead of the pomegranates or strawberries.  The possibilities are endless, I'll leave it to your imagination to come up with your own delicious combination.

I was lucky enough to have a couple of ears of sweet corn leftover in my freezer from the summertime.  I simply blanched them quickly in some boiling water, then cut the corn off the cob and allowed it to cool.  You could certainly use frozen corn kernels.

Since we were eating this salad for dinner, I added some cooked shrimp on top for a little extra protein.  I just thawed some peeled and de-veined, wild caught shrimp then tossed them with a couple tablespoons of the prepared lemon vinaigrette, some salt and pepper and broiled them for about 4 minutes on a foil-lined baking sheet.  Grilled chicken or marinated, grilled thinly-sliced sirloin would also be delicious on top.

I picked up these (wild caught!) Key West shrimp on Sale at Whole Foods!  They are pink when they're raw, so cute.

Superfood Quinoa Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
serves 4-5
adapted from Iowa Girl Eats

1 cup dry quinoa (I'm a fan of Bob's Red Mill brand)
1 1/2 cups water or vegetable broth
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onion, white and green parts
2 clementines, peeled and chopped (or substitute 1 orange)
1 avocado, chopped
1 cup cooked black beans (drained and rinsed, if using canned)
1/2 cup sliced strawberries
1 cup thawed or fresh corn kernels
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper
Cooked shrimp, chicken or steak (optional, for serving)

For the lemon vinaigrette:

1/4 cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon, juiced)
2 garlic cloves, microplaned or very finely minced
1 teaspoon agave nectar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Prepare the quinoa:  Rinse quinoa very well under running water in a sieve or fine mesh strainer.  Allow quinoa to air-dry for 15 minutes or longer (this step is optional but highly recommended).  Transfer rinsed and drained quinoa to a sauce pan and toast on medium heat for 1-2 minutes, stirring.  You don't want the quinoa to brown, you are just removing any excess moisture from the grains.  Add 1 1/2 cups water or vegetable broth to the pot and bring to a boil.  Season with salt, cover and reduce heat to low.  Allow to simmer 12 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed.  Remove lid, fluff with a fork and allow quinoa to cool fully.

Prepare the lemon vinaigrette:  Combine all ingredients for vinaigrette in a bowl and whisk together, season with salt and pepper to taste.

Assembly:  Combine cooled quinoa with green onion, chopped clementines, avocado, beans, sliced strawberries, corn and cilantro. Pour lemon vinaigrette over the salad and stir to combine, season with salt and pepper as necessary.  Top with cooked shrimp, chicken or steak, if using.  Serve cold or at room temperature.

Shrimp on top!

Updated 6/20/12:  By request, here are the nutrition facts for the salad.  

For one serving (the above recipe, split into 4 portions):  Calories 390, Fat 10 grams, Fiber 12 grams, Protein 17 grams.   For the dressing, add about 60 calories and 6 grams of fat per tablespoon.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies

I think that when it comes to coconut, you're either a fan or you are not.  There's no gray area.

My scientific research on the subject has me convinced that you either love it or hate it.  Don't ask about my research methods.  They're super-secret.

If you (like me) are a coconut fan you are going to LOVE these cookies.  If, on the other hand, you're in the non-fan camp, I heartily apologize.  And yet I am also happy, since that means more cookies for me.

Distinctly soft and pillow-like with an unmistakable coconut flavor, these cookies are delicate and tender while feeling substantial at the same time.  It must be the magical qualities of the coconut flour and coconut oil that allows for such unique characteristics.  Not crisp or chewy, these are far from your typical chocolate chip cookie.  But if you're looking for something different or if you happen to have some coconut flour sitting around your pantry give these a try.  And in case you were wondering, the semi-sweet chocolate compliments the coconuttiness perfectly.

Some benefits of coconut flour vs. all-purpose (white) flour:

-high fiber (the highest-fiber flour available):  12 grams of fiber per 1/4 cup of coconut flour vs. 2 grams in all-purpose flour
-low glycemic-index
-high protein:  4 grams fiber per 1/4 cup vs. 3 grams in all-purpose flour
-tastes like coconut! YUM!

Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies
makes about 2 dozen cookies
adapted from Chocolate and Carrots

1/4 cup coconut oil, melted fully (I am currently using Spectrum Naturals brand)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon coconut extract
4 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
1/2 cup organic natural cane sugar
1 cup coconut flour (I love Bob's Red Mill brand)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare two baking sheets by lining each with a piece of parchment paper or a silpat.

In a small bowl, combine both oils, both extracts, eggs and almond milk, stirring well to fully incorporate and break up egg yolks.

In a larger bowl, stir together the sugar, coconut flour and salt.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until combined.  Add chocolate chips and mix well.

Drop tablespoon-size scoops of cookie dough onto prepared cookie sheets, spacing cookies 2 inches apart.  Bake 20 minutes, rotating baking sheets halfway through.  Cookies should be lightly golden brown on top and bottom.  Transfer cookies to cooling racks and allow to cool to room temperature.  Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Swamp Head Brewery Beer Dinner

For Christmas this year my sister and her husband bought Brian tickets to a 5-course Beer Dinner at our favorite Tampa restaurant, The Refinery.  This place is awesome:  everything is seasonal, local (sourced from within 100 miles), fresh and prepared with the ultimate care.  Oh yeah, and their entire menu changes every single week.  Even with a changing weekly menu, they always manage to have several gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options for those with specific dietary restrictions (which I think is so cool of them) and the service staff is incredibly knowledgeable and always happy to recommend a new wine or beer to go along with your dinner choice.

Amazingly enough, The Refinery manages to stay so innovative while being the exact OPPOSITE of pretentious.  Great food, reasonable prices, good people, comfortable atmosphere and I can't say enough good things about Chef/Owner Greg and his wife Michelle.  They and their service staff are truly just the nicest, most down-to-earth people.....

Well, Heidi and Rob came up with such an awesome Christmas gift for Brian:  they sent us to the Swamp Head Brewery Beer Dinner that The Refinery was hosting last week.  If you've never heard of Swamp Head Brewery, they are a microbrewery located in Gainesville, FL lead by Brewmaster Craig Birkmaier.  Fairly young for a brewery, I think they've been at work for about 3 years or so, they are putting out a dozen or so limited release beers in addition to their half a dozen brews available year 'round.  I am, admittedly, no authority on beer but Brian and I really enjoyed tasting 5 of Swamp Head's limited release beers and found a couple of favorites among them.  

The best part of the Swamp Head Beer Dinner was the pairing of each beer with a different food course, all prepared with the same thought and consideration that we have come to expect from The Refinery.  They were able to elevate each course to a level surpassing the sum of it's parts - by featuring ingredients that were the perfect counterpoint to the subtle nuances of each paired beer, the food brought out flavor notes that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.  

As a lover of wine and someone who truly enjoys pairing wine with food, I am surprised that I never really thought about the idea of food and beer pairing.  Considering it now, it makes absolute sense to choose a beer to best complement what you are eating, but I think all too often the particular beer (or in many cases the food) is just an afterthought.  Not so here.

The First Course:  Strawberry Panzanella salad with heirloom tomatoes, greens, toasted croutons, tomato saffron citrus vinaigrette and homemade mozzarella "string cheese".  The perfectly-ripe, sweet strawberries, sweet heirloom tomatoes and tart citrus of the vinaigrette were a perfect complement to the light, floral Saison du Swamp.  Without itself being "sweet," the Saison du Swamp, my favorite beer of the evening, had obvious citrus notes and a light, refreshing body - I could have happily sipped that beer all evening long.  But there were 4 more varieties to try and lots more food, so with a heavy sigh as my half-full glass was whisked away, I prepared for course number two.

The Second Course:  Head Cheese with Pressed Cuban Bread, Citrus Fennel Celery Salad and Mustard Vinaigrette.  A new taste for both Brian and I, Head Cheese is not a cheese but rather a terrine of pork served cold, in which the tender meat from the head is used.  Paired with Swamp Head's Winter Belgian Wheat Bier "Hoe Hoe Hoe" which had strong ginger notes and obvious citrus undertones, the cardamom and chile used to flavor the Head Cheese were present but not overpowering.  A delicious seasonal wheat bier and Brian's favorite he tried all evening, the Hoe Hoe Hoe ignited a curiosity in us both to try Swamp Head's Cottonmouth, the belgian-wheat bier starting point from which their seasonal variety takes shape.

Brian enjoying his Hoe Hoe Hoe
The Third Course:  Tomato and Eggplant Soup with Coconut Eggplant Croute.  A thick puree of sweet tomatoes and eggplant seasoned with red curry, this soup was flavorful and addictive.  I could have eaten two bowls (had I had the room for it) and in fact it was so aromatic that I could not resist devouring it and forgot to take a picture.  The soup was paired with Swamp Head's Hoggetowne Irish Red, a traditional Irish Ale with a medium body that went down so smooth with notes of caramel and malt and (surprsingly) helped cool the palate from the warm red curry used in the soup.  I would be remiss if I didn't mention the absolutely divine experience of eating the coconut eggplant croute, perched just atop the thick, hearty soup.  I could have eaten a dozen of the crispy, bite-sized morsels with a pint glass of the Hoggetowne Irish Red and called it a night.  (This is so cute, I have to share: I made such a big deal of how delicious the coconut eggplant croute was that Brian shared half of his with me.  Best husband ever.) 

The Fourth Course:  Crispy Pork Belly with Ancho-Chocolate Apple Butter and Shaved Kohlrabi with  Granny Smith Apple Slaw.  This was paired with Swamp Head's Chipotle Smoke Signal, a robust American Porter with a punch-you-in-the-face smoke flavor.  Not for the faint-hearted, you really have to enjoy deep, dark Porter-style beers to finish a glass of the Chipotle Smoke Signal (neither Brian or I even finished half of our pint-size glasses) but paired with the crispy pork belly it made perfect sense.  The natural sweetness of the pork and the apple slaw, when taken with the smoky (smokey?) beer reminded us of another use of this cut of meat - smoked bacon, without the meat itself having been smoked at all.  Full but not yet defeated, we moved onto course number five.

Crispy Pork Belly, ancho-chocolate apple butter, Granny Smith, watercress, kohlrabi

The Fifth Course:  Strawberry "Shortcake" - sweet cornbread layered with strawberry buttercream, with orange gastrique and vanilla-cayenne chantilly.  This came out with a (smaller by comparison) glass of Swamp Head's Catherine's Passion, a Russian Imperial Stout (10% abv- whoa!).  Deep and dark with intense flavor, I was prepared not to like Catherine's Passion, but was truly surprised at how much I really enjoyed it, especially with the dense but rich strawberry shortcake.  If a Stout Beer and a cup of black coffee had a love-child, it would be Catherine's Passion, which tasted like the bittersweet cocoa nibs I love (have you tried these things?!).  Sensual and intense, not sweet, despite the obvious flavors of cocoa and coffee.  A perfect compliment to the delicious shortcake and the most excellent finish to an outstanding meal.

Strawberry Shortcake, sweet cornbread, strawberry buttercream, orange gastrique, vanilla-cayenne chantilly

Enjoying Catherine's Revenge

I highly recommend sampling Swamp Head's offerings if you are ever in Gainesville (home of University of Florida), or look for it on tap the next time you visit a Florida bar offering a good selection of microbrews.  And if you are ever in Tampa, do yourself a favor and try The Refinery, I doubt you will be disappointed with your choice.     


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Arrrrgh ya ready to run?!

I did it!  I signed up for my very first race!

Remember my 2012 Goal to run a 10K?  Well, I'm not quite there yet BUT I'm on my way!  I signed up for the Gasparilla Distance Classic 5+3K on March 4, 2012, that's exactly 6 weeks from tomorrow.

Here in Tampa each January we celebrate the Gasparilla Pirate Festival. It is, well, how do I explain this?  Hmm..

(Going off on a tangent here for the purpose of explaining Gasparilla....)  It's a pirate festival where every year a "Mystic Krewe" of Pirates takes over the city.  The Spanish Pirate, Jose Gaspar, and his crew land their ship in Tampa Bay near downtown and then invade (or actually, parade) down Bayshore Boulevard.  Apparently it's a little like Mardi Gras, but I've never been to either.  Drinking and debauchery ensue.  We're looking forward to attending our first Gasparilla Pirate Parade next weekend!

Anyway, Gasparilla is a big thing here in Tampa and as part of the festivities there is always an annual Gasparilla Distance Classic.  Well, the big news is, Brian and I are registered to run the 5+3K (basically, an 8K) or 4.97 miles!

I regularly run 3 mile distances so I know I could have run a 5K easily by the first weekend in March so I wanted to really push myself to do a further distance than I can now run.  I wanted something to really train for.  I've set myself a speed/time goal and it's definitely going to be a challenge for me but that's exactly what I need!

I've got a training schedule and everything.  Today was speed drills.  Sooo glad to be done with that until my next next speed workout a week from today!

Wish me luck as I start training for my very first race, I am so excited!

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