Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: As Always, Julia

I’m always intrigued to learn more about public personalities…you know there is always more to the inner person than what you see on the screen or through their writing.  Julia Child is no different.  There is more to learn about Julia Child beyond watching the Julie and Julia movie or her shows on PBS.  To know Child as a person, I recommend you read As Always, Julia: The Letters of Juila Child and Avis DeVoto (her friend and unofficial literary agent) edited by food historian Joan Reardon.

This charming book is a series of more than 200 letters between Child and DeVoto that began in March 1952 with a fan letter from Julia to Avis’s husband, Bernard DeVoto.  Child read his article in Harper’s magazine and agreed with his frustration on the sharpness of American stainless steel knives.  She sends him a gift of a French knife.  Avis responds because Bernard is busy preparing for a long trip.  The exchange of letters begins, and within a few short months the salutations switch from Mrs. Child and Mrs. DeVoto to Dear Julia and My Dear Avis.

This is a book that you can read at a leisurely pace.  I mean, because is is an exchange of letters you can read just a few pages at a time and you won’t lose the thread of the story.   However, I actually found it quite riveting, and read it quickly.  I appreciated learning about these smart women and the development of their friendship, but as a fan of history I certainly enjoyed the details of their daily life.  They constantly discuss politics which in the midst of the McCarthy era is fascinating.  And, set in a pre-Betty Friedan time, these intelligent, accomplished women did see themselves as housewives, but were simultaneously pursuing serious work.  It is a snapshot of an earlier time in feminism, but some of their feelings toward marriage, sex, and parenting can still ring true today.

You also read about the development of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, one of the most influential cookbooks ever written.  We are privy to her cooking experiments, negotiations with publishers and partners, and research into cooking equipment available to American homemakers.  Julia relied greatly on Avis for information about ingredients in American markets, and for advice on publishing.  Avis was the book’s and Julia's number one cheerleader.

I found it heartening to read that even the great Julia Child had self-doubt and relied on the support of friends to continue.  She felt there were so many individuals more qualified than her that were already published that she sometimes needed to be reminded that she was creating a new path.  It is reassuring to know that she was only human.

 I think you will find this book as interesting and charming as I did.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Can't Believe They're Whole Grain Cookies

Our friend Shawn just had a birthday.  Unfortunately, it coincided with a major breakdown in his bracket, his NCAA basketball tournament bracket, that is.  This breakdown also meant that he owed several people steak dinners.  I thought it was a shame to lose a bet on your birthday, so I wanted to cheer him up.

Hmmm...what to do.  Cookies!  That always works for me, especially if they have chocolate.  Wait, I know he and his girlfriend try to watch what they eat...I'll use whole wheat flour!  That should relieve some the guilt.  Don't worry...I didn't skimp on the butter.  Or the chocolate chips.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 2 dozen

Modified from Good to the Grain

3 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
12 oz chocolate chips

Place two racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl.  You can add any bits of grain that remain in the sifter.

Add the butters and sugars into the bowl of your mixer and on low speed, mix just until blended.

Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is combined.  Mix in the vanilla.

Add the flour mixture to the bowl and blend on low speed until just combined.  Scrape the sides of the bowl, if necessary.

Add the chocolate chips and mix on low speed until combined.  The dough will be very thick.  You may need to use your hands to finish incorporating all the ingredients.

I used my hands to scoop out the dough, 3 to 4 Tbsp worth, placing them 6 to a baking sheet.

Bake the cookies for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheets for each shelf halfway, until the cookies are evenly browned.  Cool the cookies on a cooling rack and repeat with the remaining dough.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Distiller for a Day

Well, not exactly...I was more like a distillery employee for a day, but a girl can dream, right?

Because my husband and I enjoyed our tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail so much, I decided to look for similar experiences closer to home.  I'm familiar with and have toured some local wineries and breweries, and readers of the blog will recall we visited the Wasmund's distillery last year, but the microdistillery scene is growing.

Enter Catoctin Creek Distillery.

Located in a garage in an industrial park in the middle of Loudoun County Virginia, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere, Catoctin Creek is a tiny family-owned distillery making rye, gin, unaged/white whiskey, and a couple of brandies.

Owners Scott and Becky Harris are totally committed to a 100% organic operation.  Everything - from the ingredients, the equipment, the cleaning solutions are certified organic.  Even the barrels are made from certified organic Minnesota oak including the sealants on the barrels which are beeswax.

Every so often they recruit no more than 20 volunteers to help them bottle the next batch.  The husband and I were lucky enough to get a couple of slots and join them for bottling day this weekend.  It was a fun learning experience that made us continue the fantasy of becoming distillers ourselves.

All batches have multiple types of alcohol resulting from the distillation process.  The poorer tasting alcohols come of the distillate first (the heads) and then again at the end (the tails).  The art in distilling comes in taking the proper cut of the "heart" of the distillate (avoiding the heads and tails), where you get pure, clean-tasting ethanol alcohol.

All the spirits except for the pear and grape brandies are made from 100% organic rye flour.

It is used to create a mash that is heated and then cooled in a large, blue fermentation tank for 3 to 5 days.

The fermented rye is then distilled in a German copper still, heated by electricity.

Distilled rye spirit is run off and the heart is poured into stainless steel casks to hold Mosby's Rye Spirit and Waterhead Gin.  Another batch is aged for less than 2 years in charred oak barrels for Roundstone Rye Whiskey.

Now they call in the volunteer troops...

Once they are ready to bottle, the distillate goes into what they call the whiskey cow, known in other circles as the bottle filler.  Check out the future whiskey-drinker...

A volunteer corks the bottle and checks for foreign particles.  The bottles are then sealed.

Next, the bottles are labeled both front and back.

Finally, the bottles are boxed and the boxes are sealed, labeled, and stacked.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Green Goodness

I love avocados.  I could eat them just about every day.   In fact, when I lived in Texas, I very nearly did.  They were a tasty part of any meal.  The avocado tree is native to Mexico and while they are easily trucked into Texas, they are also cultivated there, too.  So, the fruit was pretty widely available to me and pretty cheap, as well.  Not so much here in Washington, DC.

I saw some Dominican avocados in the store today, and they looked a bit worse for wear from their long journey...

We start to see domestic avocados here in the Spring.  And I am anxiously awaiting their arrival...

Salad with Grilled Chicken, Bacon, and Avocado
Makes 4 servings

For Salad:
2 chicken breasts, skinless and boneless
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
4 slices bacon
1 cup grape tomatoes
1 large avocado, or 2 small avocados
2 to 3 green onions
1 bell pepper (any color)
10 oz salad greens (variety is your preference)

First, you need to marinate the chicken.  I always use gallon-sized zip-top bags for my marinades, but a large bowl covered with plastic wrap will work, too.  Combine chicken, garlic, salt and pepper, lime juice, and olive oil in plastic zip-top bag.

After sealing, use hands to distribute liquids and spices over chicken.  Keep in refrigerator for 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Heat grill to medium high.  Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade.   Grill chicken 6 to 8 minutes on each side.

Remove from grill and let rest a few minutes.  Slice into strips and set aside.

You have some options for cooking the bacon...You can pull out your cast-iron skillet and cook the bacon over medium heat for 20 or 30 minutes or until crisp.  Or, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F, and line a broiler pan with aluminum foil.

Arrange the bacon slices in a single layer and bake them for about 15 minutes or until crisp.

Cool and drain on paper towels.

Dice tomatoes, avocados, green onions, and bell pepper.

I like to prepare one large salad, but you may want to plate individual salads for each of your dinner guests.

In large serving bowl, add salad greens.  Toss with diced vegetables.

Crumble cooked and cooled bacon on top.

Add sliced grilled chicken.

Serve with dressing.

For Dressing:
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp dried parsley
1/4 tsp dried basil
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
salt and pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in bowl and whisk until well blended, or pour all ingredients into a jar with a lid and shake until emulsified.

Avocados are not just delicious - they are also beneficial to your health.
  1. Healthy Eyes - Avocados have more carotenoid lutein than any other fruit.  This antioxident protects against macular degeneration and cataracts.
  2. Lower Cholesterol - Avocados are high in beta-sitosterol, a natural substance that has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.  
  3. Lower Blood Pressure - Avocados are a great source of potassium, which contributes to lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of stroke.  Avocados contain even more potassium than bananas!  
  4. Great Source of Vitamin E - Avocados are the greatest fruit source of Vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects against many diseases and helps maintain overall health.
  5. Skin Moisturizer - Avocado butter and oil, two deep-conditioning emollients, will soften skin, eliminate dry patches, and restore your skin's elasticity.  High in vitamins A, C, and E, avocado oil conditions skin without leaving behind an oily residue.

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    And The Bourbon Goes On...

    We've continued to savor the flavors of Kentucky since returning home.  I especially enjoy the combination of booze and dessert.  Here are a couple of my favorites...

    Since a barrel may be used only once to age bourbon, Kentucky has a flood of used bourbon barrels.  Many are used to age scotch, but recent years have them holding beer, as well.  We picked up two varieties of bourbon barrel beer - a stout from Bluegrass Brewing Company and an ale from Alltech.

    Both are delicious and our a wonderful companion to vanilla ice cream in a beer float.

    Bourbon Barrel Beer Float
    Makes 2 floats

    4 - 6 scoops premium vanilla ice cream
    12 oz bottle bourbon barrel beer (ale or stout)

    This is a super easy dessert.  Put two to three scoops each of vanilla ice cream in two pint glasses.

    Slowly pour 6 ounces of beer in each glass.

    Sip through a straw and try not to pour yourself another...

    A popular dessert in Kentucky is a pie made with bourbon, chocolate, and nuts.  A version is sold in most restaurants, but only Kern's Kitchen can call it "Derby Pie" after having it trademarked both in Kentucky and the Federal Government.  The family rigorously defends this trademark, so in restaurants or recipe books you will see the pie referred to as "First Saturday in May Pie," "Pegasus Pie," "Thoroughbred Pie," or other such winks to the reference.

    The Dessert That Cannot Be Called Derby Pie for Fear of Trademark Violation
    Makes 1 9-inch deep dish pie

    9-inch deep dish pie crust
    1 1/4 cup pecans
    1/2 cup butter, melted
    1/4 cup white sugar
    3/4 cup brown sugar
    3/4 cup light Karo syrup
    4 eggs, beaten
    1 tsp vanilla
    1/4 cup bourbon
    1 cup chocolate chips

    I won't provide pie crust instructions here, but you can follow mine, or create your own.

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

    Spread pecans onto a baking sheet and place in oven for about 10 minutes or until fragrant and slightly toasted.  Remove from oven and let cool.

    Line pie pan with pie crust, flute edges, and place in refrigerator while you prepare filling.

    Blend melted butter, sugars, and Karo syrup in a medium bowl.  Stir in beaten eggs, vanilla, and bourbon.  Set aside.

    Take out pie crust and sprinkle chocolate chips and pecans in bottom of pan.

    Add egg and sugar mixture.

    Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until filling is set, and crust is lightly browned.

    Monday, March 21, 2011

    Kentucky Bourbon Trail - Part Four

    Our third and final fun day on the Bourbon Trail...

    Jim Beam
    526 Happy Hollow Road
    Clermont, Kentucky

    After breakfast, we started our day with some Jim Beam and a tour of the family home of the second largest distilled spirits company in the U.S.

    The Beam family home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has two centuries of family memorabilia on display.

    Unfortunately, this distillery is not set up for visitors to view the stills, but we were able to see a crew rolling barrels through the warehouse.

    Booker Noe, a grandson of Jim Beam, was the Master Distiller for 40 years.   He possessed a truly larger than life personality.  No, literally... he weighed more than 300 pounds.  The owner of the Jailer's Inn explained to us that Booker was a friend of his parents, and they had a chair made specifically to bear his weight when he visited their home.  He passed away in 2004 and was cremated.  His dog still lives with his widow, and when the dog dies he also will be cremated and his ashes will be combined with Booker's so they may be companions for all time.

    So, not only did Booker make great bourbon (I love the small batch Booker's), but he was a dog lover, too?  My kinda guy.

    Maker's Mark
    3350 Burk Springs Road
    Loretto, Kentucky 40037

    This distillery is very visitor friendly.  Because it is small and all processes are located on-site, it makes it easy to see and understand all aspects of bourbon-making from milling the grain to barrel aging to bottling.

    We were fascinated to learn that besides making tasty bourbon, Maker's Mark is also an innovator of green energy.  The energy needed to heat their stills and produce alcohol vapor is methane-rich biogas, not fossil fuels.  The distillery feeds the stillage, or leftover grain and water from the stills, to bugs who in turn produce methane that heats the stills.  Cool, huh?

    After some lengthy experimentation, the Master Distiller recently developed a new bourbon, Maker's 46.  The bourbon is made as usual and aged in charred oak barrels.  Once it has fully matured it is dumped from the barrel and the barrel head is removed.  Lightly seared French oak staves are then placed inside the barrel.  The bourbon is returned to the barrel for additional aging.  The addition of the carmelized wood adds extra sugar to the bourbon and we found it quite reminiscent of cognac.

    You can also see America's oldest remaining retail whiskey store, which was built in 1889 and was where Maker's Mark was originally sold.

    End your tour in the gift shop where you can dip your own souvenir bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon into the signature red wax.  

    City of Bardstown, Kentucky

    Apart from touring distilleries, we also spent time in the community of Bardstown, the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the the World.  It is a typical Southern small-town.  Established in 1780, Bardstown is Kentucky's second oldest city, and is home to Annual Bourbon Festival every fall.

    Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum
    114 North Fifth Street
    Bardstown, Kentucky

    Curated by the Bardstown  Historical Society, this museum houses an amazing and extensive collection of rare artifacts and documents of the American whiskey industry from pre-colonial days to present.  The displays were fascinating and definitely worth the stop.  Admission is free, but donations are suggested.

    Hurst Drug Store and Soda Fountain
    102 N. Third Street
    Bardstown, Kentucky

    I couldn't remember the last time I had been to an old-fashioned soda fountain.  It is a fun place to stop for a hand-made sandwich or afternoon treat of a milkshake or float.  The ice cream is from regional Mayfield Dairy Farms.

    The drug store is right on the courthouse square and is surrounded by antique and gift shops, so you can pick up souvenirs for the folks back home.

    Keene's Country Hams
    8 Old Bloomfield Pike
    Bardstown, Kentucky

    If you really want to make folks back home happy, though, I recommend bringing back food.  Not only can you buy a country ham and other Kentucky specialities, but Keene's Depot also sells guns and hunting accessories; fishing tackle and bait; beer; and ice.  What more do you need?

    What is country ham you ask?  A Southern specialty, country ham is ham that has been salt-cured for several months, then smoked with hardwood (like hickory), and then aged for another several months, or even years.  It is drier and saltier than most hams you can buy in the grocery store.  You may see whole bone-in hams being displayed unrefrigerated and hanging in rough cotton bags.  You can buy a whole ham or purchase a portion.  Read the labels carefully, if it is uncooked, it must be scrubbed and soaked to remove the salt cure and mold.  

    We purchased a cooked ham and served it sliced very thin at room temperature with biscuits.  A delicious companion to bourbon.

    Old Talbott Tavern
    107 W. Stephen Foster Avenue
    Bardstown, Kentucky

    This 200-year-plus-old tavern represents the oldest western stagecoach stop in America and past guests include Abraham Lincoln, General Patton, and Jesse James.  Bardstown is not a hubbub of activity on weekday evenings, but the Tavern's dining room is open for dinner and drinks.  The staff are very friendly and attentive, and the space is cozy and conducive for conversation.  We enjoyed bowls of burgoo, fried chicken, and a bourbon sampler.  Yum.