Monday, March 19, 2012

Spring Impressions: My Watercolors

Detail, Spring Rose
inspired by CheyAnneSexton

inspired by Yael Berger
 I have not been as diligent as I'd hoped about sharing my amateur artistic endeavors.
Partly because photographing art is really challenging (perfect light is hard to come by these days), and partly because I've been super busy painting. :)  
Last term I took an acrylic class, which taught me exactly how  much I did not know about painting (but it was fun).  This term I am taking a watercolor class, and, despite the odd crisis about shadows, shading and perspective, it's teaching me how much I do know (or maybe it's all just starting to sink in).

Watercolor, so far, is my favorite medium. I love working with water. I love the fact that your paints dry on the color plate or palette and you never have to worry about them again.  I love that it's not messy and that it's so quick.  It doesn't involve a lot of the complexity regarding drying and waiting that oil or acrylic do.  And besides all that, it's dear to my heart because it's the first type of painting I ever seriously put my mind to learning on my own.
Radishes / Beets?
inspired by Yael Berger

I've really enjoyed the class so far, which has been going for about a month or so.  It's given by the same teacher I had for acrylic though the crowd is really different.  I'm also finding that because of the minimal clean up watercolor requires, I am also painting a lot outside of class in my own time. And Roman is slowly but surely being tamed into don't-touch-the-watercolors submission.  I also think I'm enjoying it because I've made a friend with a girl in my class and we've started meeting up outside of class for painting sessions as well - usually involving drinks and snacks :) - and have even embarked on a project: making a book illustrated with our watercolors.

This idea originally started when a friend of mine in London told me she was taking an art class in which she was writing and illustrating a children's book about her son.  That sounded right up my alley and so I thought, why not use my watercolors to do it? That has slowly morphed into making a keepsake for Roman to have about Portland in time for when we move to Denver at the end of May.

So not only do I enjoy watercoloring but now my hobby also has a short-term goal and purpose, which elevates it to something more meaningful for me.  And as fun as trawling Etsy for inspiration (see The Joy of Color and CheyAnneSexton for just two that I really love) and objects to copy - a fantastic way to observe and learn techniques when you don't have a teacher in front of you - I'm looking forward to taking some of my personal photographs or ideas and making them an entirely original piece of work.  God knows I have enough photographs to do it.
Spring Rose, with border
Anyway, I wanted to share some of my "work" thus far. I am really proud of my flower (title picture above), which I think really encompasses the feel in Portland right now. Spring is springing and the whole world seems to be boisterously desperate to embody that beautiful sunshine that blooming flowers are. As for the rest, they are a mix of things I've done in the past two months, and while some of them are decidedly crappy, I'm pretty proud of them too. :)
*  *  *

Detail, radishes / beets?
I'm really proud of these stems!

Maine countryside, from a book
Little bird, copy from here
Non-Descript Landscape
Moody Maine coastline,
copy of a Charles Wright original

Spring flowers

San Pellegrino Blood Orange

Ruby Red Grapefruit, lame attempt at this
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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Oysters & Down East Chowder: A Wintery Maine Dinner Party

Chowdah on a Snowy Day.
When we moved to Maine last year, one of the things I most anticipated and dreaded was the long, hard snowy winters of New England.  On the one hand, having just left the comfort of Abu Dhabi's winter desert - balmy 80-degree days with sunshine all throughout - I dreaded the idea of having to pull out the old winter wardrobe and dress Roman in layers.  On the other hand, I was desperate for some seasonal change - living in permanent summer is not all it's cracked up to be - and could not wait for the chance to ski, snowshoe, sled and generally frolic in the fluffy white snow with Roman.  With the passage of summer and the entrance of Autumn, I went slowly but surely from dread to full anticipation.  And by the time December came, I was all-out praying that we'd have a white Christmas in Connecticut at my in-laws.  But we didn't.

And in fact, apart from one or two snows over a month ago, we haven't had almost any snow at all!  I tried to go cross-country skiing 4-5 weekends in a row, with no luck.  Everyone here in Portland is already talking of "spring fever" while I've been sitting at home practically cursing the gods over their Invernal (and infernal) leniency.  With March quickly approaching, and talk of Easter buzzing, I had all but given up on my dream Maine winter.  And then the unthinkable happened: Matt turned 30.  And hell froze over. :)

We woke up to a beautiful blanket of white on the first day of March.  It didn't stop snowing for nearly 12 hours straight, and it stuck (we even made it to Harris farm for some long-awaited Cross Country skiing - but more on that in another post). The next day, we had a surprise dinner guest and so I thought, why not have two of my favorite Maine foods to celebrate the occasion?  Oysters and Down East Haddock Chowder, it was.  With two types of oysters (Wellfleets & Beau Soleils bought at Harbor Fish Market) and two types of homemade mignonette to compliment them (plain and spicy-cilantro), the best baguette in Portland (from The Standard Baking Co.), and some Avocado "butter" to spread on it, it was going to be a feast truly worthy of a cozy Maine winter's evening, and a truly easy impromptu dinner party.

Why are these two of my favorite Maine foods?  Here are my top 5 reasons, in list form.

* * *

Top 5 Reasons to Eat Oysters & Chowder in Maine
in copious amounts and various forms

5. They're Local.
I love that Maine is so into promoting its local culture, local foods, local businesses.  I love being able to buy an entire meal that is sourced locally - it's kind of a cool feeling and the food generally does tend to be fresher. 

There are an abundance of local (Maine-grown) oysters: I love JP Shellfish's website for their no-nonsense overview of the best Maine has to offer.  They give tips on salinity, size, meatiness, "clean-ness," and availability.  Wellfleets are not Maine oysters (they come from Cape Cod, so close enough), but Beau Soleils are.  And so are my favorite oysters of all time: Bagaduces.  Word has it they're Thomas Keller's favorites too.  Good enough for me!

Chowder is as ubiquitous here in New England as Gumbo in Louisiana.  There are lots of different variations, but the one I discovered by accident at a Mainer's house is one of my favorites.  It is a milk-based (not cream!) haddock (not clam!) chowdah.  Easy, no-fuss, no-frills - like the Mainers.  And it's basically a dream because the longer it sits and "matures," the better it tastes.  Recipe below.

4. They're Green.
Haddock, which is what Mainers generally use in their chowder, is a totally sustainably harvested fish.  It is in great abundance here in Maine and therefore always available and usually relatively fresh.

I'm not usually one to harp on matters of the environment because I hate people who shove their opinions and life-views down your throat, but I will say that overfishing is something that bothers me, because of the impact it has on all the other naturally dependent species and ecosystems within that particular ocean / lake / river. So, while I'm not 100% great about only buying sustainably harvested fish, when I can, I do!

Oysters here in Maine are plentiful and varied. And the great thing about the frigid, frigid North Atlantic waters of Maine is that they are available and at peak almost ALL year long (rather than just in the fall / winter months as is usually the case).

3. They're Kid Friendly (at least the chowder).
The reason I even found out about this recipe is entirely due to Roman's willingness to eat it. We were visiting a friend's friend's house and the pizza we had ordered was taking forever. Roman was ready to gnaw either my or his arm off, so when the host started feeding his 1 year-old I begged for a little of whatever she was having for Roman. It turned out to be this chowder, and he slurped it down, as did the 1 year-old.  And he has happily eaten it every time I've made it since.  His wife is a native Mainer and it was the kind of chowder she grew up with - he admitted to adding Thyme and bacon, which is apparently slightly avant-garde as far as the purists are concerned.

He also told me that they often give their children plain yoghurt with maple syrup drizzled over. What a totally Maine thing! I left with two new New England-y, child-friendly food options. Great. :) 

2. They're Super Down East.
So, I never quite understood what people were talking about when they threw the term "Down East" around.  Technically it refers to the coast of Maine from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border but colloquially it's a term of cultural pride and territorial nature, and it's very Maine.  True to having a special term just for "things Maine," Mainers are kind of, well -for lack of a better word - "exclusive" as a group. Not that they're pretentious or uppity but they're not really into "new neighbors" or "new friends."  "If you're not from here, you never will be a Mainer," said my son's preschool teacher in reference to her non-Mainer husband, only half-jokingly.  Not only do they stick together they also love to enjoy Maine-things.  And chowder and oysters are definitely two of them - so I eat them. Because I have to feel a part of Maine somehow!

1. They're Truly Delish.
 All kidding aside, I do love these two foods. The chowder is awesome and super comforting, but to me the oysters of Maine (and New England in general) are something approaching food-perfection. So good. So fresh. And so natural.  I'm including a recipe for one of my favorite mignonettes to serve with raw oysters as well as the recipe for Down East Haddock Chowder. Enjoy!

*  *  *

Down East Haddock Chowder
of the mostly-traditional persuasion

Serves 4-5

So my unorthodox additions to this chowder are the shrimp and the bacon. I love the contrast of textures (and I also love shrimp). Still, though, I'd consider this true-blue Down East chowder, because I got the recipe from a Mainer, but then I'm not purist.  If you're really hardcore you'll leave out the clam juice altogether and just do it with milk and water. This chowder is watery by nature - please don't go into this expecting New England Clam Chowder consistency or you'll feel jipped. :)

1 1/2 lbs Haddock fillets, whole
12-15 large shrimp, peeled, de-veined and sliced in half lengthwise
6-8 slices of bacon
2 cups clam juice or fish stock
2 cups whole milk
2 cups water
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 cups (~2 large) potatoes, diced
1 tsp dried thyme or 1 tbsp fresh thyme
salt & pepper to taste
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp canola oil

1. In a dutch oven or large pot fry the bacon in the canola oil until crisp.  Remove to drain on paper towels, and leave the bacon grease in the pot. When cool, chop the bacon into small bits and place in a bowl for garnishing the chowder.

2. To the bacon grease add the onions and celery and cook until softened over medium-high heat. 

3. Add the potatoes, clam juice, water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and allow the soup to simmer, covered, until the potatoes are cooked (15 minutes).

4. Add the milk and thyme. Put the fish into the pot, then cover the pot and turn the heat to low (or even turn it off, if you're daring!), leaving it to poach for 15 minutes or so. 

5. Using a wooden spoon, gently break the cooked fish apart in the chowder, leaving large chunks (or to your preference). Then add the shrimp and allow them to poach for a further 5-7 minutes. They should just be cooked through.  Taste the chowder and adjust salt & pepper.

6. Uncover and allow the soup to cool completely. Then refrigerate for at least 4 hours but overnight is best. This soup really does taste better the next day! Garnish with bacon bits and serve with crusty bread.

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Brenda's Mexican Mignonette
 Serve with cold, freshly shucked bagaduces or beau soleils

This recipe is inspired by the mignonette we had at the Front Room, a fantastic and low-key restaurant on Munjoy Hill, Portland, that serves excellent American-style food. I believe theirs was made with champagne vinegar (which seems to be the "it" thing for mignonettes here in Portland) but it's really the cilantro that makes this unique. A perfect pairing with oysters or clams.


1/2 shallot, chopped finely
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1/2 chile Serrano (or Jalapeno if you're a wuss), chopped finely
salt & pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate. Mignonette tastes even better after it's been sitting in the fridge for several hours or even overnight.

Serve with a small spoon for pouring over oysters on the half-shell.
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Friday, March 2, 2012

Real-deal Quiche.

My first-ever real-deal quiche.
Quiche is one of those things that is so ubiquitous that I would venture to say it's actually reached the point of being under-lauded.  Up until a few weeks ago, in my uninformed mind, a quiche was simply the French version of an Italian Fritatta or a Spanish Tortilla.  Nothing particularly impressive, but tasty.  I figured all I had to do to make a quiche was mix a bunch of eggs in a bowl, add the fillings and pour that into a pastry crust.  Wrong, wrong, ever-so-embarrassingly-wrong.  

A quiche is not just another item on the list of many-splendid-cute-and-quick delicious appetizers available out there to the home cook.  It's not just another item on the mediocre and overpriced pathetic excuse for a French bistro I used to frequent in Abu Dhabi (I know, it looks so good but it's not - just think: pork-less French food! eek.), or any French bistro for that matter.  It's kind of an iconic thing, the quiche.  So simple, so well-known and widely-enjoyed around the world.  And yet, after making my first real quiche, from scratch, and asking all my closest friends and family, none of them knew that a quiche is made by creating a proper, real-deal egg custard.  Not just a sloppily whisked-together bowl of eggs.   A custard!  So simple and yet so different!  And when I realized it was a savory custard (ooh how I LOVE flan!) I was making (rather than baked scrambled eggs), I suddenly went from simply appreciating quiches to being a full-fledged devotee.

It was also a huge revelation to me that you layer the custard, rather than just dump all the fillings in at once.  It's a time-consuming process but makes for evenly dispersed ingredients within the quiche, and it's so worth the extra effort when you get the perfect bite every single time.

custardy layers
The recipes I used for the pastry and the fillings came from my newly discovered long-time cookbook Bouchon (of Thomas Keller fame).  One day I opened the book up and decided it was high-time I tried my hand at the real-deal.  I went into a quiche-making frenzy that Matt will probably remember for years to come.

I made three quiches in one-and-a-half days (which given how time consuming they are to make, is an achievement), two of which I kept and one of which I gave away to a friend who had just had a baby. 
I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did mine. Here are the flavors I made:

1. Kale, bacon and Gruyere
2. Maine Shrimp & Asparagus
3. Gruyere & caramelized onion

Apart from one disaster where I didn't pre-bake the crust long enough and it broke and the custard started leaking through, they all came out superbly.  I don't have a proper quiche pan like Thomas Keller recommends, so that's on the culinary wish-list, but until then I swear by my normal, removable-bottom tarte pan which worked really well.  On the other hand, I don't recommend trying the loaf tin so much.  Very hard to get the quiche out in one piece, and believe me, the last thing you want to do is break that thing of beauty after all the blood, sweat and tears it took to make.

My (&Matt's) favorite was the Kale, bacon and Gruyere, by far, so I'll share that recipe here.

* * *

Kale, Bacon & Gruyere Quiche
a la Bouchon

Serves 4

Pastry & Custard Recipes: See Thomas Keller's Bouchon Recipe

Follow the instructions above, simply substituting my fillings, as follows:

(Besides the things needed for the custard and crust above, of course)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 head kale, chopped
6 rashers of bacon, chopped into small squares
1 cup grated fresh Gruyere cheese

1. While your crust is pre-baking, sautee the bacon until crisp.  Remove to drain and cool on paper towels, saving the fat in the pan. 

2. Add the minced garlic to the pan with the bacon fat at medium-high heat and sautee until fragrant (less than 30 seconds), then add the kale.  Sautee until completely wilted.  Set aside in pan.

3. When it's time to layer the quiche, start with a layer of custard, a layer of kale, a layer of bacon and a layer of cheese.  Repeat 2-3 times more (as necessary), ending with a generous layer of cheese.  Be sure, as Thomas Keller suggests, to fill the quiche to the very brim, even adding the last bit of custard mixture once you've placed the quiche in the oven, so as not to spill and waste.

Serve with a simply dressed mesclun salad and bon appetit!
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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Happy 30th Birthday Matt (& a Waffle recipe)!

It's a landmark!  A landmark best celebrated with homemade waffles (on an antique Wagner

Celebrating 30 years of Mat
cast-iron waffle iron), 18 year old Macallan Scotch (hellz yes, Matt loves his wife now!) and your closest friends and family. 

But since the latter are all too far away, I brought them to 
breakfast through a giant photo and memory scrapbook that I've been working on for the better part of the last month and a half. 

Over 30 of Matt's friends and family contributed by filling out a cheesey but sweet questionnaire of my creation, and sending in pictures and all their best wishes for the Birthday Boy. 

He was duly surprised, nay, struck and moved. :)  Thanks to everyone who contributed!

Roman's contribution
The Marcus Farkus Brotherly page
So yes, this post is mostly-congratulatory in nature, but also part-braggy regarding my latest crafting affair / super online-birthday-find (the amazing waffle iron).  Either way, hope it's a memorable day for my partner in crime, and here's to another couple of 30-year adventures, this time as a couple the entire time :)

Happy 30th Birthday Mizzle-Mazzle!  

* * *

Crisp, fluffy, delicious, birthday waffle-yness
Here's my newly found recipe for the best waffles ever.  Seriously good.  At least 10-times better than any silly "gaufres de lieges" we had in Belgium, which tells you something.

The Wagner in all its glory.
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
1 3/4 cups milk
1/2 cup canola oil
2 egg whites

1 bad-ass-mofo-who-don't-take-no-shit-off-nobody-stove-top-Waffle Iron


1. In a medium mixing bowl stir together flour, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center.

2. In another bowl beat egg yolks slightly. Stir in milk and oil. 

3. Add egg yolk mixture all at once to the dry mixture. Stir just till moistened (should be lumpy).

4. In a small bowl beat egg whites until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight up).

5. Gently fold egg whites into flour and egg yolk mixture, leaving a few fluffs of egg white, Do
not over-mix.

6. Spoon waffle batter into your waffle iron, making sure not to overfill it.

Serve with real maple syrup and copious amounts of butter!

Tips for using a stove-top waffle iron: Make sure it's super hot before making any waffles.  Then spray it copiously with spray-on butter and/or oil.  Leave the waffle for about 1 1/2 - 2 minutes per side, flipping to check doneness (look for browned, crisp edges and the ability to lift off the iron in one pieces without much flimsiness).

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