Friday, June 29, 2012

Zucchini Tea Cake and A Walk to the Library

It’s about a fifteen minute walk to the local library, and I make that trip at least once a week. The short distance is a blessing since we are a one-car family now, and that car is only around for me on the weekends, when the library is closed. Not being able to get to the library easily would be reason enough to move--its location was one of the first things I researched when we first came to Cambridge. You are never far from civilization if a library is near. That, and a supermarket. Books and food, not necessarily in that order, are all one needs to survive.

It’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. 
Reading is grist. Reading is bliss. -- Nora Ephron

The local library in my home town was close enough for me to walk to, and that walk would fill me with great anticipation.  I can’t really say that I had an unhappy childhood, but there were many times when I was more than grateful to become lost in someone else’s story, rather than focus on what was going on in my own. Reading then, as now, was a huge escape.  Those were the days before I was able to research and reserve my books online, so I never knew what great discoveries would be awaiting me once I got to the front desk. My absolute favorite time to go was right before summer vacation. I would load up on as many books as possible--usually twice as many as was permitted during the rest of the year--and happily, albeit lumberingly, trudge home with my treasures. Regardless of how overloaded my arms were, I often still had enough energy to stop and pick some flowers for my mom from some poor unsuspecting neighbor’s garden. I realize now how wrong that was, but back then, surprising my mom trumped all bad behavior.
It will almost be fifty-two times that I’ve made the walk to the Cambridge library (well, 104 times, if you count both ways), as it’s been almost a year since “the big move.” I’ve learned a lot about the neighborhood during those walks--in the rain, the snow, and now in the extreme heat. The houses I pass are typical to this neighborhood. Shingled row houses, lined up like Revolutionary soldiers. Some have been renovated, but most have not.  Colors ranging from cream to pale green to weathered grey. They are unobtrusive and no-nonsense--just like the New Englanders who built them, I assume. These are not the Cambridge homes that proclaim their pedigree on brass placques nailed over the porch.  No "c.1629 or "c.1788" here, just the remnants of holidays past with dried-out wreaths and wooden Pilgrims guarding the front door; bits and pieces of Americana.  Pumpkins that sat next to shovels and sleds during the winter withered and caved in upon themselves, and have been replaced with newly potted plants and red, white, and blue “Welcome” signs. Here and there an American flag flutters as the wind kicks up.
It is hot, very hot, and the only sound in the otherwise quiet street is the soft clanking of the window air conditioners; sputtering out water out from below, obviously being taxed to the hilt. Unlike the modern hi-rises and refurbished brick factories that now house the many biotech firms in the area, these houses have not yet been updated with central air. They are the symbols of the old neighborhood, not the new one that is dotted with restaurants and cafes that charge four dollars for a latte and ten for baked eggs.  I carry the books in the crook of my elbow. They are cumbersome, and slide around on the little pool of perspiration that has collected there. I switch them from one arm to the other; wipe, and switch back.
 The gardens I pass now, unlike the ones from my childhood library jaunts,  do not have many flowers. The winters here are harsh, and the growing season is short. There are other streets in the area that are more colorful and picturesque, but this is the only route I follow. Its familiarity has eased the feeling of rootlessness I felt when I first set out on my walks.

Last week I have spotted some activity in a garden or two. The delicate tendrils and large leaves of some zucchini plants had popped into view. Back in California, similar plants have already yielded many bushels of the green squash, but here they are just becoming part of the scenery. As is often the case with zucchini, there will eventually be more than enough to feed the neighborhood. The recipe below, from one of my favorite bakeries in San Francisco, will be a delicious way to use up some of the bounty.The first time I ever tasted Zucchini Bread was during a pot luck luncheon many years ago. I was an assistant editor at the time, and our department would have these luncheons intermittently. We didn't have a name for it then, but it was a definitely a team-building activity. I remember being wowed by this bread which tasted more like a cake, but also remember it being very, very sweet. (Perhaps that had to do with the heavy dose of chocolate chips spread throughout.) My tea cake is light and lovely, with just a hint of sweetness. I changed things up a bit by substituting apricot preserves for orange marmalade, but feel free to add whichever jam you prefer. I have been experimenting with various types of flours lately and substituted some spelt flour as well. I think it lends a subtle, nutty flavor, but still produces a moist and tender crumb. It's perfect for a New England summer, and goes great with a tall glass of iced tea...and a good book.

Vegetables are a must on a diet. 
I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.
Jim Davis, "Garfield"


Zucchini and Apricot Preserves Tea Cake

Adapted from Tartine

1 & 3/4 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (9 1/2 oz.)

1 cup spelt flour (4 3/4 oz.)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 large eggs

3 1/2 cups grated zucchini (about 3 medium)
3/4 cup apricot preserves
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped

1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Lightly oil and flour the bottom and sides of two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Line the pans with parchment paper.
Preheat the oven to 175°C.
Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
In another bowl, beat together the eggs, oil, buttermilk, sugar,  and preserves until combined. Add the zucchini and mix again until combined. Add the flour mixture and mix just until combined. Add the nuts and mix just until incorporated.
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared loaf pans and sprinkle the tops with the chocolate pieces. Press them down gently, and then run the back of a teaspoon down the top center of each cake. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 60 to 70 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 20 minutes, and then invert onto the rack. Turn right side up, and let cool completely. Serve at room temperature. This cake is very moist and will keep, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Have Grill Pan, Will Travel

I know the song says “It Never Rains In California,” but that really isn’t true. “It seldom rains in Southern California” is more like it. And, to the delight of backyard grillers, it seldom rains badly enough to hamper outdoor grilling. On the West Coast, anyone who has access to an outdoor area can pretty much make grilling a year-round activity. The folks I've met in New England count the days until the weather becomes warm enough to head outside with barbecue tools in hand. Now that this California girl has become a New Englander I can relate, but unfortunately, we traded in our Cali home and backyard for a Cambridge apartment, with no backyard! 

The call of the outdoors, and memories of delicious and smoky barbecued dishes grilled to perfection were almost too much for me to bear.  I’ve often heard how resourceful New Englanders have had to be throughout history, dealing with Mother Nature’s capriciousness, and although I’ve lived here not yet even a year, I've tried to adopt that characteristic with respect to grilling. With the help of my trusty indoor grill pan, and my oven, I managed to make some tasty grilled chicken breasts. I found that pounding the breasts very thin, quick-grilling them on the stove to give them some nice grill marks, and then finishing them up in the oven produces a reasonable facsimile of an outdoor barbecued entree. And, it is a delicious dish in and of itself! I came across a great recipe from Andie at, and changed it up a bit by adding some red pepper paste to the marinade. (If you cannot find it in the market, you can puree a jar of roasted red peppers with a little olive oil in the blender. The remaining puree can be added to store-bought tomato sauce to give it a homemade touch.)  
A green salad and some cool, summery side dishes, like this or this would be great additions to the chicken. I started “grilling” burgers too using this method below, and while I do expect to get my backyard and outdoor grill back again someday, this will tide me over just fine.
(adapted from
4 sun-dried tomatoes, drained
4 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. roasted red pepper paste
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/4c. fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2c. white wine
1 1/2lbs. skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 4 breasts)
Using a meat pounder or the bottom of a heavy saucepan, pound out your chicken breasts (shiny side up) between two sheets of plastic wrap to about a 1/2” thickness. Place in a shallow glass Pyrex dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Combine remaining ingredients except the white wine in a blender and pulse until you have a thick puree.
Pour half of the mixture over the chicken and rub it in.  Cover and refrigerate for an hour. Reserve the remaining half of the sauce, at room temperature, for serving.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a grill pan with 1 tablespoon of oil, and heat it over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, place the breasts in, in a single layer, shiny side up. Grill the breasts for about 2-3 minutes, until grill marks can be seen. Flip them over and repeat for another 2-3 minutes. 
Pour about 2 tablespoons white wine into the grill pan and swirl it around.
Place pan in the preheated oven and bake chicken for 10-15 minutes. (Check chicken after the 10-minute mark. If it is no longer pink, it’s done.)
Mix remaining marinade with the remaining white wine. Pour over the chicken and serve.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Berry, Berry Fond of Strawberries

In 1992, I was home with a toddler and a newborn, and I became acquainted with a group of women who, like me, were relatively new to the neighborhood and new to this stage of life. All of us had come from careers outside the home, and some of us would eventually go back to them, but at the moment we were all in the same place--and we were looking for friends. In addition to sharing parenting, marriage, and decorating tips, we also shared recipes. And when we had the time, we shared lunch. 
One lunch entree in particular always comes to mind when I see strawberries, as I did this past weekend when I went strawberry picking here in New England. It was a chicken salad that contained the berries, and back then during that nascent period in my world of food exploration, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Fast forward almost twenty years--celebrity chefs have become our best friends and have opened up our eyes and palates to dishes we might never before have considered, food TV is omnipresent, and everyone to a woman professes to be a food maven. Now,  the idea of pairing strawberries with chicken salad sounds delightful to me, and not uncommon at all. What had once been innovative has become the norm, and creating delectable dishes by combining the savory with the sweet--think bacon in everything from cookies and doughnuts to chocolate truffles--makes for very interesting eating. Pastry chefs know that a pinch of salt added to cookie and cake batters helps balance the sweetness and enhance the other flavors. Adding the sweet, yet somewhat tart berries to a mayonnaise or yogurt-based chicken salad compliments the piquancy and cuts through the creaminess of the dressing. 

While many of those long-ago friendships grew stronger and flourished through the years, I can’t really say the same for the lasting power of the recipe my friend Kathy used. I think the startled reactions of the other moms in the group prompted her to toss it. (And I would like to take this time to send a "Mea Culpa" to Kathy for the harassment she had to endure.)  There are now many similar recipes on the Internet. Below is one of my favorites, and it has the addition of chopped pecans which contributes greatly to the textural component.
Sonoma Chicken Salad
(adapted from
about four to five bone-in, skin-on split chicken breasts
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

For the dressing:
1 scant cup low-fat mayonnaise 
4 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
5 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
For the salad:
the cooked and cooled chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
3/4 cups pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped 
2 cups firm strawberries, hulled and cut in half
three stalks celery, thinly sliced
To cook the chicken, earlier in the day or the night before, preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and place the chicken breasts in a roasting pan. Brush the skin with a little bit of olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Roast the chicken for about 35 to 40 minutes, or until the juices run clear when the meat is pierced with a knife.  Allow the chicken to cool until you can handle it, remove the skin and peel the meat away from the bones, and shred into fairly large pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl and refrigerate for an hour or so, until well chilled.
In the meantime, prepare the dressing: mix together the mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, honey, poppy seeds, and salt and pepper. Refrigerate until you're ready to dress the salad. (Can be prepared up to two days ahead.)
Once the chicken pieces are chilled,  add the halved strawberries, pecans, and celery and mix. Stir in half of the dressing and toss until the salad is nicely coated. (You can add more dressing, if you wish, but I prefer a less-drenched salad.) Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve.  This salad is best eaten the day it is prepared. Serves six approximately.

Now that we’ve dispensed with the "newfangled" sweet-and-savory combo, we can move on to something just a little more old-school. There is no need to fuss with the berries when making the recipe below.They are juicy and delicious as is, so just wash them, halve them, and scatter them around a big bowl of this very basic Vanilla Ice Cream. You could certainly use store-bought, but with a simple recipe such as this, why would you? (All you need to do is plan ahead.)  The other day, I gathered Albion and Seascape. The Albion is a hearty variety and the  berries are longer and not as sweet as the Seascape, which are smaller and rounder. By combining both varieties in your bowl, you will have all your strawberry bases covered. And as the ice cream melts and mingles with the berry juice at the bottom to create a pinkish berry "soup," the pressure to get up and bake a pie or crumble will melt as well.
Vanilla Ice Cream
(from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz)
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk or half-and-half
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
3/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Pour one cup of the cream into a medium saucepan and add the sugar. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod into the saucepan and add the pod to the pot. Warm over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved.
Remove from heat and add the remaining cream, the half-and-half, and the vanilla extract. 
Chill mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, for at least eight hours or overnight.
When ready to churn, remove the vanilla pod, then freeze in your ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sand, Sea, Love...And Some Chicken

Sand and Sea

Our speedboat cut into the choppy waters like a serrated knife cutting into stale bread--that is, not smoothly. Even though my eyes were clamped shut I could tell the boat was vertical more often than it was horizontal. I’ve lived in Southern California, beach country, for more years than I care to remember, but I cannot forget that I am a New York City girl at heart. The extent to which I am comfortable with things bobbing in the water is having a bar of soap in the bathtub. "Who talked me into taking this trip to Anguilla?" 

Until I reached dry land, that question was repeatedly going through my head. But, being the wonderful (did I say ”wonderful”) aunt that I am, a boat ride was not going to keep me away from my niece’s wedding. So I took that roller coaster boat ride from St. Maarten to Anguilla, a flat, low-lying island of coral and limestone in the Caribbean Sea. And that, my friends, is the only bad thing I can say about Anguilla.
With water that looks as if it were hand tinted with turquoise food coloring, sand as fine as 00 flour, and natives who are ever-smiling and oh, so friendly, Anguilla truly is a little slice of heaven on earth. Sounds like a perfect place for a wedding, at least that’s what my niece thought. And she was absolutely right. 
Standing before a group of loving family, friends, and some random beach strollers (both human and canine), beneath a muslin draped canopy that had been festooned with seashells, my niece Lauren and her groom Justin said their vows. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the guests dined on crab cakes, grilled lobster and island specialties such as candied plantains and coconut slaw. Fueled by the mind-altering rum punches from the bar, we soon hit the floor to dance to the handful of Bob Marley tunes the local reggae band knew and sang...over, and over, and over.
Not everyone can have a wedding such as this. (I know I didn’t.) But when you’re at your own wedding, so deeply in love and caught up in the moment, every wedding can feel like this. And every wedding should.
And Some Chicken--with a side of mashed plantains and veggies
In addition to all the pre-wedding festivities, barbecues on the beach, and hours spent lying on a chaise lounge listening to the waves lap against the shore, I took a cooking class....
This recipe, which I adapted from Chef Diane's class at the Cuisinart Resort, appealed to me because Jerk Chicken is generally prepared on the grill, and this one uses the oven. And, as we all know...since I relocated, I no longer have access to an outdoor grill (boohoo).

4 limes, juiced
2 cups water
6 chicken breasts, bone in
2 bunches scallions, coarsely chopped
1/4c. fresh thyme (or 1 Tbsp. dried)
1 Tbsp packed brown sugar
2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
8 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 scotch bonnet peppers, coarsely chopped
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4c. balsamic vinegar
olive oil
 Cut chicken breasts in half. (You should have 12 pieces.)  Place pieces in a large bowl and add lime juice. Add enough of the water to cover. Mix, and set aside.
Place chopped scallions, garlic, scotch bonnet peppers (take care with these, as they are HOT), thyme, the ground spices, and salt and pepper into the work bowl of a food processor, and process until vegetables are finely chopped, but not pureed. Drain chicken; return to mixing bowl. Spoon half of the vegetable mixture into the bowl and toss with the chicken until all pieces are well coated. Cover bowl and refrigerate for one hour.
Coat inside of a large skillet with olive oil and heat until oil is very hot. Gently place chicken in skillet and brown, about 8 minutes on each side. (You may have to do this in two batches.) While chicken is browning, preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a large sheet pan with aluminum foil.
Once all the chicken pieces have been browned, remove them from the skillet and place them on foil-lined sheet pan. Return skillet to stove and add one more tablespoon of oil. Add remaining vegetables and saute until they are soft. Add the balsamic vinegar to the pan and deglaze, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom. Turn up the heat and cook until mixture reduces and thickens slightly. Pour over chicken.
Tightly cover sheet pan with additional aluminum foil and place in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Serve chicken and top with any drippings that may have collected in bottom of sheet pan.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Splish Splash, I Was Given A Bath

The next to last time a man gave me a bath, I called him “Daddy.” No, this is not the beginning of some tawdry sex tale...I called him “Daddy,” because he WAS my Daddy.  And I was about five years old at the time. 
The last time a man gave me a bath was about two weeks ago--in Urgup, Turkey. After a long day of touring and hiking the caves in the city of Cappadocia, my husband and I decided a relaxing experience would do us good. We were staying in a small town nearby and the local hamam (Turkish bath) was just down the street from our inn. I had done some prior research on Turkish baths and thought I had a good idea of what to expect. “It’s a rub-down and a massage. How bad could it be?” It was definitely on the bucket list of my trip, so I was stoked.
Back in the day, Turkish baths stood for much more than a mere cleansing. They were a rite and a ritual and used for purification purposes as well. The building itself was a place where young and old, male and female, rich and poor could come together socially, and in many cases to celebrate holidays and milestones. The hamam we chose looked as if it hadn't changed much from those earlier times.

 A wave of hot, humid air hit us as we entered the dome-topped stone building. “Oh good.” I thought. “There’s a woman already done with her bath. I will probably get the woman/masseuse who worked on her.” Two young male attendants, one fully dressed, and one wrapped in what looked like a skirt made out of a cotton tablecloth...for a small table, were in the waiting room. One of them handed me a pair of plastic slippers, a wrap (pestemal) similar to the one he was wearing, and a key, and motioned me to one of the small private cubicles that lined the walls. Actually, he motioned my husband and myself to one of the cubicles explaining that we were going to share the room. As we both got in, undressed, and tried to figure out how to strategically fashion the wraps around our bodies, we also made a poor attempt at trying to stifle our nervous laughter.
After reading that the soap and shampoo used in traditional hamams were very basic and oftentimes harsh, I decided to bring my own. With the rest of my belongings locked in the cubicle, there I was, holding my two small bottles of “product,” padding around in my plastic footwear, trying to make sure that my little tablecloth did not reveal even one inch more of skin than was appropriate, waiting for my gal to steer me to my next destination. It was do or die at this point. The same attendant led us into a circular tiled room that was even more warm and humid than the reception area. Surrounding this room were alcoves that contained shower heads, and an enclosed sauna room. In the center of the room was a very large, round, marble platform, a gobektasi. We were told to shower, go into the sauna to work up a sweat, and then hop on the gobektasi.
After going a few rounds with the sauna/cool shower combo, we both plopped sprawled out on the platform and waited. The platform, I discovered, was heated. And as I learned from my research, the tiles on the walls were supposed to remove static electricity from the air, and help to relax the mind and body.  It was quite relaxing--and wet, since the condensation from the heat of the room dripped down on us from the glass pockets in the high domed ceiling above. I would consider myself to be pretty adventurous. And going to a Turkish bath rated a very low score on my adventurous activities scale. But I have to admit that I did have a very hard time relaxing in that room, as I waited for “my gal.” 
After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only fifteen minutes the attendant came in again and led us to a room that had what looked like two massage beds and two sinks. Next to those beds were our bathers--two young gentlemen wearing skirts. “This should be interesting,” I thought. Well, when in Rome, er, Turkey.... The next few minutes were a flurry of warm water, hot water, and soap. (And all of this while I tried my best to remain covered.) My attendant used sandpaper a mitt to scrub my body that I swear fishermen use to descale fish. I knew they were supposed to remove layers of dead skin, but I didn’t know they were going to remove ALL of my skin. Then came the bubbles--LOTS of bubbles from some sort of a contraption I like to call a bubble bag. I know I’m showing my age, but do you remember the Mr. Bubble commercial where they can’t find the little girl because she’s lost in the bubbles? Well, that little girl had nothing on me. Keep in mind that all the while I am going through this, my husband is right across from me getting the same treatment. After I caught the first dumping rinsing of water over my husband’s bubble-covered body, I decided it was best to keep my eyes closed for the remainder of the session. My only regret is that I did not have a video camera, but if Allen Funt (showing my age again) jumped out from the gobekta wearing his own pestemal, I would not have been surprised at all.
Following the skinning scrubbing came the massage. Just what I wanted...someone kneading and rubbing my body after he had removed all of my epidermis. This was a young, skinny guy. How intense could his massaging be? Whaddya think? If I knew how to say “mother of God” in Turkish, I would have. 'Nuff said.
Once we were done being tortured massaged, we were given fresh towels, dry wraps, and left to get dressed. As we exited the cubicle and went to pay, our two attendants were at the desk chatting and eating doner kebabi (gyro subs). Just another day at the office for them. You gotta love it.
I know that some of the other hotels where we stayed in Istanbul offered more sybaritic Turkish baths with fragrant oils, fluffy towels, and aromatherapy. As luxurious as those treatments sounded, we realized they could have been had anywhere. What we experienced was the real deal, and that’s what made it ever so memorable. I loved visiting Turkey and hope someday to return. I may even take a Turkish bath skin may have regained its natural color again by then.