Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A little bird gave me the recipe

Doesn't that salt & peeper shaker (March 31, 2009 post) look like a Twitter bird? Well, there is a twitterer (I guess that's what they're called) named @twecipe. The idea is that you send @twecipe a list of ingredients and he/she/it sends you back a full recipe using those ingredients.

If you know anything about Twitter, then you know that all messages are restricted to 140 characters. I don't think it would be hard to do a list of ingredients in such a small space, but what about a full recipe? Let's see.

This comes in at 137 characters (spaces are counted):
Marinate flank steak in A-1/broil, thinly slice. Salsa: dice 2 nectarines, mince small red onion, lime juice, minced jalapeno + cilantro.

A little loose, but I bet most people could cook from that.

Salt & peeper shaker

So just because I ranted about salt doesn't mean that I don't like it. After all, salt gives us the opportunity to dress up our tables with impossibly cute gadgets like this Salt & Peeper Shaker.

If you turn this little guy's head to the right, his blue eyes turn white and you can shake salt out of his beak. If you turns his head the other way, his eyes turn black and you'll get pepper.

It's $11.50 from bibelot.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The alphabet challenge

One of the things I enjoy most about cooking is figuring out the puzzle. I like nothing better than opening the refrigerator and seeing if I can concoct something really tasty using the random ingredients that happen to be there.

So when I posted the entry about the Eatphabet it got me to thinking that it would be fun to come up with a recipe that only used foods starting with the letters in my first name.

I made up some rules for myself: 1) I could include the first initial of my last name so I would have 5 ingredients to play with and 2) oil, salt and pepper wouldn't count.

I've already come up with 10 ideas and as soon as I try them out I'll publish them (assuming they work).

If anyone cares to join me in this challenge (using your own name, of course), please feel free to send me your results--pictures, too--and I'll post them.

To salt or not to salt

Don't get me started on salt. Let's just say that most people eat too much and food manufacturers enable them. The thing with salt is that the more you eat, the more your palate wants. Luckily, that works in reverse, too. If you start cutting back on salt you will discover that you're satisfied by a lot less.

Now to the science. The general wisdom on salt and health is that it can cause problems for your blood pressure, but really only if you are what is considered "salt sensitive." The catch is that salt sensitivity is not easily or obviously measurable, so to play it safe doctors recommend that everyone, especially anyone with risk factors for hypertension, cut back.

A recent study by the University of Kentucky Medical School and a medical college in China illustrates the relationship between salt and hypertension. The researchers reported that high levels of salt in the blood can suppress the activity of an enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS). The significance of this is that NOS is indirectly reponsible for signals to the muscles surrounding blood vessels to relax. An UNrelaxed muscle can constrict the blood vessel and increase blood pressure.

So the lesson here is that if you--or anyone in your family--tends toward high blood pressure, then you should start cutting back on the salt (not just salt added at the table, but the sodium in canned goods). You will find that soon your tastebuds won't notice that you've cut back.

Why, you ask, is there a picture of an ear of corn here? Well, there are a couple of foods that most people are adamant about sprinkling with salt, and corn on the cob is right at the top of the list. So here's my tip (and I've converted a bunch of hard-core salt lovers to this method): Serve the corn with wedges of lime. Smoosh it over the corn before you add any butter...though the corn-lime combination is pretty good without butter, but one battle at a time, right?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My name spells a weird dinner

On flickr there is a photo gallery called Eatphabet, which is the entire alphabet spelled out with food. The author, Luiza P., says of the gallery: "This project was conceived as a way to document my eating habits and routine, through the creation of an alphabet."

I thought it would be interesting to see what my meal would be if I used her photographs to spell my name. So here's what I'm having for dinner (in the order of the letters in my name):
  • Chinese pork chops and chinese rice
  • Green salad, stuffed red peppers, goat cheese and a mixture of carrots, ricotta and nuts on whole wheat bread
  • Turnovers (pasteles)
  • Scrambled eggs and ham
Darn. I guess I'll have to change my name if I want dessert.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Braised Chicken with Sherry & Almonds

Sherry is a fortified wine from Spain: specifically an area near the town of Jerez in the southern province of Cadiz. Since the 1930s, the name Sherry has been legally protected (like the name Champagne), and any vintner who labels a wine sherry that isn't produced in the Jerez region is subject to prosecution.

Fortified wines (which include Port, Madeira and Marsala) are those wines that have had a stronger alcohol--usually grape brandy--added to them. They can have a consistent style and level of sweetness, or there can be a range from dry to sweet. This is true of sherry, which ranges from very dry (fino or manzanilla) to a dessert-style wine often labeled Cream Sherry. In between are amontillado (you may remember the cask of Edgar Allan Poe fame) and oloroso.

For cooking purposes (in the recipe below), you'll be fine with a dry sherry, and in fact you can buy the cheaper American versions of sherry that are required to call themselves "American sherry." Just don't buy something in the supermarket called cooking sherry, because it has salt added to it and is dreadful.

Braised Chicken with Sherry & Almonds
Serve the chicken and sauce over rice, barley, pasta or even slices of toasted whole wheat baguette.

2 red bell peppers, cut lengthwise into flat panels
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon paprika, preferably smoked
1 teaspoon salt
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken (breast and/or thigh)
5 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup dry sherry
2 cans (14-1/2 ounces each) diced tomatoes
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/3 cup chopped parsley

1. Preheat the broiler. Broil the bell pepper pieces, skin-side up, 4 inches from the heat for 12 minutes or until the skin is charred. Turn the pepper pieces skin-side down on the broiler pan to cool. When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into 1/2-inch-wide slices.
2. Cut the chicken into large serving pieces (in thirds for breasts, in half for thighs). In a shallow bowl, combine the flour, paprika and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour.
3. In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate.
4. Add the sherry to the pan and cook at a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan, for 2 minutes to reduce the liquid.
5. Add the tomatoes, roasted peppers, almonds, red pepper flakes and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 5 minutes (or longer if you want; this is to break the tomatoes down a bit).
6. Return the chicken to the pan, cover and cook until the chicken is cooked through but still juicy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the parsley.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

The Lunchbox Project

I love this idea. A blogger named Lisa Orgler is doing what she calls a "food collage journal." Every day, on The Lunchbox Project, she posts a painting of food, with a little blurb to go with it. For example today, March 27, 2009, she has a cute little portrait of cucumbers (viz above) with a lament that they are not notable in the nutrition department. Her style is delightful. And no surprise, she also has an Etsy store.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Soldier on at breakfast

On the other hand maybe you're a soft-boiled egg person, in which case surely you need to have this egg cup. These little plastic soldiers look completely daunted by their task. Too funny.

Check it out on firebox.com.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Egg-poaching pods

If your egg-cooking method of choice is poaching, then you might be interested in this fun(ny) silicone pod. It can be used in boiling water, in the microwave or in a regular oven, and when the egg is cooked, you just pop it out onto your toast.

The poachpod® comes from fusionbrands (the same people who make the FoodLoop Lace for trussing poultry) and sells for about $10 for a set of two (one light and one dark green). Check out the fusionbrands website for a video on how to use it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to crack an egg

When I learned to cook, I was taught by my mother, and her mother, to crack an egg on the side of the bowl (or pan). Sometimes, with a particularly unstable bowl, the corner of the counter came into play.

So there I was having breakfast with a bunch of food professionals and the topic turned to how to crack an egg (I guess because we were all having eggs for breakfast). I was surprised to discover that half the folks there cracked eggs flat on a counter--the theory being that this way you minimize the shardage (ooh, I like that phrase).

This made me wonder how other people crack eggs, which is why I ran a little poll to see. It turns out that it's about 50-50, flat-crackers to rim-crackers.

Feeling a little like the last one to learn a secret, I decided to start flat-cracking. The method definitely cracks the shells in larger pieces that are less likely to fall into the bowl, but (and maybe because I'm not adept at it yet) it also left small pools of egg white on the counter.

I consulted Howard Helmer, who has the distinction of having been in the Guinness Book of World Records three times as the world's fastest omelet maker*. (I think he might also be in the book for being the most enthusiastic person in the world.) Here's what Howard explained:
When I'm on the road doing my omelet-making demonstrations, I put on 3 shows a day for three days, and for each show I crack three dozen eggs. That's 324 eggs!

For me, because I have to work so fast, cracking eggs flat on the counter slows me down (and what a mess it makes, too). So I'm an edge-of-the-pan/bowl man. I crack my eggs on the edge of a bowl two-at-a-time in both hands and I do it by bringing the eggs down to the lip of the bowl hard. The real trick is to not do the "wussy" rap, rap rap method, because then you're guaranteed to end up with unwanted eggshell shards.
Watch Howard making an omelet:

*427 omelets in 30 minutes

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lily Bird soy sauce dispenser

A couple of years ago, Alessi, the Italian kitchenware company, and the National Palace Museum (NPM) in Taiwan began a design collaboration that was intended to be a melding of Eastern and Western sensibilities. The result has been a line of fun tabletop and kitchen items grouped under the name OrienTales.

Many of the items are monkey-themed, and there are lots of tropical fish and flowers, but I was quite taken with this little bird-shaped soy sauce container. As with most Alessi stuff (which is "Designer" kitchenware), this cute little bird does not have a cute little price tag. It's $32. But hey, a girl can dream.

If you want to window-shop some more of the OrienTales line, visit the Alessi website.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

“Green” storage bowls

If you read the entry on March 18, 2009, about a company called Preserve, then you know that they make products from recycled plastic. Their line of kitchen products recently won a Green Dot Award, which recognizes businesses with high environmental standards. The line includes colanders, mixing bowls, cutting boards, measuring cups and the set of food storage bowls shown here.

The storage bowls, which are both literally and figuratively green, come in two sizes: 19 and 25 ounces. The feature that really caught my attention, though, were the tops: They screw on instead of snapping on. Shouldn't all storage bowls be that way?

You can buy the bowls directly from Preserve ($2.79 for the small bowl and $2.99 for the larger one) or you can use their Store Locator.

And as with all Preserve products, you can recycle the bowls at a Gimme 5 or by mailing them in (see the March 18 entry for the details).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Goat Cheese Quesadillas with Spicy Maple Mustard

Originally quesadillas (in Mexico, anyway) were sort of like griddle-cooked tamales. The same kind of dough (masa) used to make tamales and corn tortillas was formed into a flat round, filled with cheese, folded over and cooked until the cheese melted and the masa was no longer raw. Modern and regional variations use flour tortillas instead, but the concept is still the same: A proper quesadilla is cooked on a flat griddle called a comal, and it's in a half-moon shape.

And here's why I don't do that. It's a pain. It's a lot of maneuvering of hot, cheese-filled things. So I do what many other cooks (at least in this country) have chosen to do, and that is put the cheese filling between two tortillas and bake them until the cheese melts.

Of course if you feel an attack of authenticity coming on, then you can always get yourself a comal and make a proper quesadilla. The comal shown here runs about $10 or less. And since comals are basically cast-iron skillets with very low sides, you can use a skillet you already have or a pancake griddle. You'll have to experiment with the following recipe to see how much of the filling you can manage when you're making a half-moon-style quesadilla.

Goat Cheese Quesadillas with Spicy Maple Mustard
I just used plain ol' flour tortillas for this, but there are tons of other options in the market. The other day I saw curry-flavored tortillas. I think the mild sweetness of curry spices might go nicely with these.

1/3 cup chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 large pickled jalapeño pepper, minced
8 (7-inch) flour tortillas
3/4 cup mild goat cheese (6 ounces)
1 green bell pepper, cut into very thin slivers
1 red bell pepper, cut into very thin slivers

1. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
2. In a small bowl, combine the cilantro, mustard, maple syrup and jalapeño.
3. Arrange 4 of the tortillas on a baking sheet and spread evenly with the mustard mixture. Sprinkle the bell peppers on top of each tortilla, leaving a 1/4-inch border. Spread the remaining tortillas with the goat cheese. Place on top of the tortillas on the baking sheet, cheese-side down.
4. Spray the top tortillas lightly with cooking spray. Bake for 10 minutes or until crispy. Cut each quesadilla into 6 wedges.

Makes 2 dozen wedges

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pickle bandages

When you wear a band-aid (oops, I mean adhesive bandage), everyone can see it, right? Even the clear strips are perfectly obvious.

So why not be flamboyant? Like with these pickle bandages from my alter ego website, Perpetual Kid. They're $4 for a tin of 15.

Now if you could get ham, swiss and rye bandages to go with them, you'd have lunch.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gimme 5 from Preserve

Preserve is a company that manufactures products made from 100% recycled plastics and 100% post-consumer paper.

The specific type of plastic Preserve uses is #5 plastic, which gets recycled by very, very few communites. So the company has stepped up with a program called Gimme 5.

Gimme 5 has drop-off bins in select Whole Foods stores (click here for a list of locations) where you can drop off: Clean plastic containers with #5 stamped on it (think of yogurt pots and other tub-shaped food containers), any Preserve product (more on this in a later post) and Brita filters (!).

And if there is no convenient Gimme 5 bin (OK, Whole Foods may seem like it's everywhere, but it's not), Preserve will also accept any of the above items by mail: Preserve Gimme 5, 823 NYS Rte 13, Cortland, NY 13045.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And I want to brew my hibiscus tea in this

Potter Judy Jackson, who lives in New York City (actually I think somewhere near where I live) makes really cool pottery, and I absolutely love this teapot. I feel that its calm beauty could contribute to the blood pressure-lowering attributes of the hibiscus flower.

The teapots are dishwasher and microwave safe and come with a built-in infuser. You can find them at Salubra Teas for $44. The cream color is in stock, but with 1 or 2 weeks lead time you can get one of the other beautiful, muted colors like cobalt, grape, sea green and weathered green.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hibiscus tea

Drinking hibiscus tea can lower your blood pressure.

The results of a clinical trial conducted by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Celestial Seasonings (who of course stood to gain by good results, but hey, that's how studies get funded) showed that the subjects who drank three cups of hibiscus tea daily lowered their systolic blood pressure by as much as 13 points.

Of course you already know you can find hibiscus tea from Celestial Seasonings, but if you get serious about this you can buy it in bulk from a place called Mountain Rose.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


How could I possibly exit Unofficial Sandwich Week without a tip of the sandwich knife to Tom Colicchio, Top Chef judge and co-founder of 'wichcraft, a fabulous chain of sandwich restaurants (New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas)? Check out his book--due out the end of this month--in which Colicchio shares some of his creative combos, like Slow-Roasted Pork with Red Cabbage, Jalapeños and Mustard. Desserts are there too, like Banana Bread with Caramel Ice Cream and Pecan Brittle.

A beautiful sandwich knife

Nothing can ruin a good Dagwood-style lunch faster than a knife not suited to the purpose of cutting a sandwich without squishing all the innards onto the counter.

Check out this cool sandwich knife. It's sharp and serrated and gets the job done. And it's a pretty handsome object, too. It's made of high-carbon stainless steel that is colored to match the resin handle.

The Pure Komachi Sandwich Kniferetails for about $19. In the same line of Japanese-designed knives are a lavender or turquoise santoku, a red tomato/cheese knife, a pink chef's knife and a blue fish knife. I want them all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Prehistoric sammies

Even though this sandwich cutter cuts off the crusts (I don't believe in the tyranny of children when it comes to cutting off crusts), I forgive it because it turns the sandwich into two dinosaurs. The best I could do as a kid to make my lunchbox more interesting was to color the milk in my thermos blue or green (with food coloring). If only I'd had dinosaur sandwiches to go with.

The DynoBites cutter is $3.50 from bibelot.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I am a huge sandwich fan, but it has never occurred to me to scan one. It has occurred to the author(s?) of a website called Scanwiches, though. The website, which doesn't explain itself at all, is posting photos of cut sandwiches for what might be a photographic lunch journal. Whatever the reason, the images of the sandwiches are oddly beautiful.

Today's sandwich (above) is turkey, swiss, lettuce, onion, cranberry sauce, mayo, on a roll. Apparently you can get it at M&O Market, which is a deli in New York's SoHo district.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jungle pancakes

This brings out the kid in me (not a difficult task, by the way).

When I was young, my sisters and I always insisted on pancakes in weird shapes. Our favorite was when our mother drizzled the batter in the shape of our initials. Or sometimes we made her dribble little dots of batter around so we had the teeniest, weeniest pancakes imaginable.

And we would have been absolutely besotted by these jungle animal pancakes. The pancake forms come in a set of 3 faces: monkey, lion and elephant. The set is $18 from Williams-Sonoma.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Flavour Shaker

So what do we know about me so far? I like ceramic things in the shapes of animals. I hate plastic bags. I have a lot of coffee mugs. I love Jamie Oliver. I do not like cupcakes.

Wait, rewind to Jamie Oliver.

I've been a fan ever since the Naked Chef. Somehow I feel--even though he is a national institution, an international star and probably a zillionaire--that I know him personally. I know him from the days when he was just bashing together a meal for his mates at his old bachelor flat with the indoor basketball hoop.

So I've been craving one of these thingies that he invented called a Flavour Shaker. It's been available in the UK for quite awhile, but only fairly recently here. Here's what Jamie said about why he invented it:
I was in my kitchen a few years ago bashing up some ingredients in my pestle and mortar and I suddenly thought to myself that even though I love the old pestle, there must be an easier and quicker way of bashing and grinding your herbs and spices together. Some way that isn't messy and doesn't take as much time....

I was sure there was a way of coming up with some sort of gadget where you could put all your ingredients inside it and then just shake it all together. So, I started to put some ideas down on paper, doing little sketches, and from there I got a little model made up to see if it really would work.
What he ended up with was this combination of shaker and basher. A small ceramic ball does the bashing inside the plastic shaker that's designed to maximize the ball's action. If you want to see charming Jamie demonstrate the Flavour Shaker, click here.

The Flavour Shakercomes in a couple of different colors and you can get it for $29.95 from Amazon.

Watch this funny TV spot for the shaker:

Number of times the words basher or bashing was used = 5.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lemon Bird homemade jams

Amy Deaver, the brains behind wonderful handmade jams called Lemon Bird, grew up making jam in her native Midwest, but got inspired to return to her canning roots on a trip to Provence. Her jams are all made from fruits that are locally grown--luckily for her (and for us) she lives in California, where the options for local fruit are huge.

You can check out her website at lemonbirddesign.com, but if you're interested in buying some of her all-natural, lovingly made jam, you can skip straight to her store on Etsy.

The jams currently being offered (because naturally they change with the season and the availability of the fruit) are: Kumquat and Tangerine with Vanilla, Kumquat with Dark Chocolate and Espresso (wow!) and Blood Orange Jam. They cost $7 for a 6-ounce jar (plus shipping).

But if you have a reason to splurge on a gift for someone (maybe Mother's Day, or someone getting married, or graduating from college), I think it would be great to offer a membership to Lemon Bird's Jam of the Month Club. For $145, you (or your giftee) get two jams the first week of every other month (12 jams a year). The membership fee includes the cost of shipping. Check out the etsy shop to get more details on the flavors of jam you could possibly receive with the Jam of the Month.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Calling all cooks

At Hallmark Magazine I had a great group of home cooks who signed on to be a recipe test panel. Every month or so I sent a handful of recipes to them for testing, and they would write back with their thoughts and suggestions.

The object of the exercise was 1) to create a community of cooks, but 2) to find out how people put their personal spins on food. Even those cooks who claim to slavishly follow recipes will usually say "Oh, well I added just a bit more cinnamon" or "I didn't have any pears around so I used apples." or "I'm not a fan of thyme so I used tarragon."

I'm a big believer in personal spin.

So I am going to continue this tradition. If you are at all interested in participating in this just shoot me an email with TEST PANEL in the subject line. I'll add you to the mailing list.

The way it will work is this: I'll email 2 or 3 recipes with proposed posting dates (though this will have to be flexible). Then when I'm ready to post the recipe, I'll let the Test Panel know the day before so that anyone who has tried the recipe can come here and add his/her two cents.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Belonging to the Test Panel in no way obligates you to test anything. You only do so if you like the recipe and are in the mood.

Ginger-Brown Sugar Custard

I am fond of culinary mash-ups. That is to say, I like to hook together the flavors of one cuisine with a technique or traditional dish from another cuisine. Examples: Mexican lasagna, Italian stir-fry, Indian tamales.

So this custard recipe is a fairly classic Western-style baked dessert custard (though much lighter on the egg yolks) sweetened with brown sugar and perfumed with fresh ginger for an Eastern connection.

I chose to make it in a single baking container because I get a little peevish dealing with all those little custard cups (especially in a water bath), but it would work just fine that way, too.

Ginger-Brown Sugar Custard
The combination of whole eggs and egg whites makes a custard that is lower in cholesterol but still very tender.

3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
2-1/2 cups milk
3 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, water and ginger. Over low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar, bring to a simmer and cook until it starts to foam up. Immediately remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
2. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Place an 8-inch square baking dish in a larger pan (like a small roasting pan).
3. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk over low heat until bubbles form around the edge and a bit of steam comes off the surface, about 5 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the whole eggs, egg whites and salt until well combined. Strain the cooled ginger syrup into the eggs and mix well.
5. Pouring slowly but whisking quickly, add the hot milk to the egg mixture. Stir in the vanilla.
6. Pour the custard into the baking dish. Place the roasting pan on the pulled-out oven rack and pour very hot tap water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean.
7. Remove from the water bath and let cool, then refrigerate until chilled, about 4 hours.

Makes 6 servings

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

An a-peeling gadget

An orange monkey to peel your potatoes. Yes.

You can buy this guy for $8.19 in Target stores or online. Animal House, the company that makes this peeler, also makes a piranha pizza cutter (???) and a parakeet garlic press.

The world's hottest chili pepper

New Mexico has a huge chili pepper industry, so I guess it's not unusual that New Mexico State University would devote itself to the search for the world's hottest chili pepper. In 2007, scientists at NMSU announced that they had found a chili pepper in northeastern India that claims the title. It is a pepper called Bhut Jolokia, which translates as ghost chili.

The heat in any chili pepper is measured by something called a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). It is an index that measures the amount of capsaicin (the substance that makes chilies taste hot) in a pepper.
  • At the low end are cherry peppers (500 SHU), poblano (1,500) and pasilla (2,500).
  • In the middle range are jalapeños (10,000), cayenne peppers (50,000) and tabasco peppers (75,000).
  • Chilies with very high SHU scores include Thai chilies (100,000), habaneros (300,000) and red Savina (500,000).
The Bhut Jokolia pepper weighs in at over 1 million SHU!!!!

If you're actually crazy enough to want to eat one, you can grow your own bhut jokolia peppers from seeds sold by NMSU's Chili Pepper Institute Chile Shop. A packet of 10-15 seeds costs $5.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What do you do when life gives you lemons?

You make a giant statue of a deity, of course.

In the city of Menton, on the French Riviera, La Fête du Citron (Lemon Festival) is celebrated every winter with Mardi Gras-style parades and floats made of lemons and oranges (the area is a huge producer of citrus fruits). If you hurry, you can just catch the tail end of it the day after tomorrow.

But if you can't make it, then celebrate the lemon French-style with a citron pressé, the French word for lemonade. (If you order limonade in France you'll get something more like Sprite or 7-Up.)

If you've ever had a lemonade in a cafe in France, then you know what the drill is. The waiter brings you a tumbler with a couple of inches of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Then he plunks down a carafe of cold water and hands you a bowl of sugar. The rest is up to you (and I could never get the dang sugar to completely dissolve). Only the French....

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Couscous Salad with Dates & Almonds

I don't know about the rest of you, but I grew up with date-nut bread spread with cream cheese. It's a flavor combination that rockets me right back to my childhood. But much as I actually like their wonderful, smokey-sweet flavor, I've never bought dates just to have around the house, because they always seemed like little pellets of pure sugar.

Well, here's the good news. Dates are actually very high in antioxidants. In fact, they are high in some of the same compounds that are found in red wine. A group of scientists at the Agricultural Research Service and UC Davis ran antioxidant tests on the 6 types of dates grown in California. The antioxidant winner was the Deglet Noor date, which is the most common type found in supermarkets.

So this inspired me to make a couscous salad with dates--they're from the same part of the world after all. I also went for whole wheat couscous, which I had not noticed before at the market. At first I thought it might be just hype, the way food manufacturers are tacking "whole grain" and "wheat" onto everything in sight. But when I compared the nutrition for regular couscous versus whole wheat, I was pleasantly surprised. The whole wheat version has almost 4 times the fiber.

Couscous Salad with Dates & Almonds
When you cut sticky dried fruit, like dates, you should lightly oil the knife to make cutting easier. For a main course, add 2 cups chopped cooked meat or cubed tofu.

2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon + 1/4 teaspoon salt
1-2/3 cups (10 ounces) whole wheat couscous
1 navel orange
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cumin
2/3 cup chopped pitted dates (6 large, 4-1/2 ounces unpitted)
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup minced cilantro
1/2 cup minced scallions

1. In a medium saucepan, bring the water and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt to a boil. Stir in the couscous, remove from the heat, cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and fluff with a fork. Set aside to cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, grate the orange to get 1 teaspoon of zest and place in a small bowl. Cut the orange in half and squeeze the juice from one half into the bowl. Peel and chop the remaining orange half and set aside.
3. To the bowl with the orange juice, whisk in the oil, lemon juice, pepper, cumin and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Drizzle the dressing over the couscous and toss well with a fork.
4. Add the chopped orange, dates, almonds, cilantro and scallions, and toss well. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

Makes 6 servings