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I’ve got a serious jones for spring.  I’d do almost anything for it to be here, drive down a dark alley, pawn my jewelry, lie to my mama.  But it’s not even the middle of March yet.  And in Colorado, our snowiest month usually, a blizzard is a lot closer than spring.  We’ve had quite a few lovely days, but in March it’s a wary sort of enjoyment.  We smile and say “Isn’t it great, so warm!” while our eyes are searching the sky for the slightest hint of a snow cloud.  You have to be ready for anything in March here, but the only thing I’m ready for is spring.  So much so that I even bought a bunch of winter asparagus all the while pretending that it was the sweet, tender green of the first shoots of the season.  I brought them home, stuck them in water, and let them hang out on the counter while I pondered the best way to fool myself, I mean enjoy them.  I finally decided on a quickly blanched, smothered in Sauce Gribiche presentation. Now for those of you that don’t know what Sauce Gribiche is, it’s basically a sauce made out of hard-cooked eggs, capers, cornichons, shallots, some sort of acid, herbs and oil.  There are those in the more mayonnaise camp, emulsifying the yolk, oil, and adding a bit of mustard, then adding the rest.  And there are those in the more vinaigrette camp.  Both ways are wonderful, but today I’m on the vinaigrette side.  I wanted a tart, acidic partner to the asparagus.  So I went with a riff on the Chez Panisse recipe.  I mean seriously, guys, you just can’t go wrong with anything from Chez Panisse!  I still have the menu from the first dinner I had there, and I remember that I tried so hard to be calm but I strongly had to resist the urge to jump up and shout “Holy Mother of Elvis Aaron Presley people, this is Chez Panisse”!  But I didn’t, and I haven’t yet, and I promise I won’t.  But every time we go, I’m immediately in the happy place.

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This is where it all starts.  One freshly washed, less than perfect, organic apple.  A Braeburn, I believe.  The humble catalyst that ends with one of the most soul satisfying desserts I know.  Bread pudding.  Guys, I can’t tell you how much I love bread pudding.  It gets made more than several times a year in my house, and if I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I’d make it every week.  The variations and combinations are endless.  I’ve made bread pudding with cake layers, with pieces of brownies thrown in, out of stale bakery goods of almost any kind (donuts, croissants, danish, and once with kinda stale turnovers that turned out so surprisingly delectable), out of almost any kind of bread, and various combinations of all of the above.  And recently, I’ve been a bit fixated on savory bread puddings, but more on that later.   So this is how it began.  Standing in the kitchen, a bit antsy.  I want to make something, but don’t have a plan in mind.  Quite a few of the things that I’ve been planning for you would require a trip to the store for ingredients I don’t have.  But I’m in my comfortable clothes, it’s really grey and cold out there, and it’s going to snow any second.  Gah, I don’t want to go to the store!  So, I stand in front of the open refrigerator, I stand in front of the open cabinets, I pull out the freezer drawer and peer into its depth for a couple of minutes.  I contemplate the bowls of fruits and veggies on the counter, I pull out the drawers with all the baking pans and doo dads, I stare out at the park and watch the people running who are so bundled up against the cold they look like multi-colored Michelin Men.   As all of what I’ve stared at for the last few minutes swirls around and starts to settle, the mental checklist comes up.  Eggs? Check.  Milk or cream?  Check.  Butter, sugar, vanilla? Check, check, check.  Bread?  Frozen brioche will do nicely, check.  Then my gaze falls on the apples.   And a vision of Tarte Tatin jumps to mind, nah….but, the caramelized apple part sounds good.  So, apples? Check.  That’s how this recipe came together.  Not exactly rocket science, but it all worked out very nicely.

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Pomodoro al Forno.  Roasted tomatoes.  Unbelievably simple.  Unbelievably good.  I don’t know about where you are, but here in Colorado we don’t have much in the way of locally grown anything right now.  In fact, the term locally grown won’t be applicable for several months.  Sigh.  My available options are the supermarket or small specialty grocery stores, and it’s a toss-up which is better.  Small store has prettier displays and produce that’s shined and placed just so, but is it better than what you get in the supermarket?  Maybe marginally.  It’s this time of year that I start to miss the Farmer’s Market, and with each passing week my longing will grown until I’m counting the weekends until it will open.  Even tho’ I know they won’t have much produce out, and it’s too early for the local signs to come up, the sight of the booths and tents will calm me.  Until then, I use an organic fruit and produce vendor that delivers each week right to your door.  It’s a pretty cool concept, and it keeps you cooking and eating your fruits and veggies ’cause they’re right there in front of you.   Imported from all over, my veggies certainly weren’t picked 20 miles away, but it’s easy and priced reasonably.    Each week you have a selection of what they have available, and it can be fun.  Kind of like the mystery box.  This is what you get, now, what are you going to make.  Which brings me back to tomatoes.  You thought I’d never get there, didn’t you?

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There they sat.  In their bowl on the counter, reproaching me with every glance at them.  Slowly losing their vibrant color, bruises and marks deepening, growing smaller perceptibly every day.  Bananas.  Happy George of the Jungle yellow ‘naners making me anxious and sad with each passing day.  I am not one of those people who relish the brown banana.  Ever since I was a kid and peeled one open on the advice of an adult that it was “perfectly good” and found a soft, slightly slimy, beige-ish, most definitely not my idea of a banana inside, brown bananas make me shiver. Most assuredly I am not the “throw it in the freezer until you want to make bread with it” person either.  Those almost black, withered things lying in the freezer horrify me and make me slam the door and hold it shut with both hands so it can’t possible every escape to terrify me in the dark.  So….I almost never buy more than two bananas at a time.  I delight in perfectly yellow, just lost the touch of green, firm bananas.  But you have to be diligent because they turn into the banana zombies almost overnight. So two, only two, at a time.  I’ve started to get organic fruit and veggies delivered to the house every week, from Door to Door Organics, and last week, in my bitty box (the smallest one) were 5 bananas.  5.  I thought I’d be okay as I had family here for a few days, and surely, the bananas would get eaten.  But there they were, so I decided this time I was going to use them even if it was technically (according to the banana bread fanatics) too early to use them.  Bah! They worked fine.  They were soft enough that the mixer could smash and mush them up, but still not to the zombie stage.  I had a bit of dark chocolate that I thought I thought would be lovely in the bread, just a hint, to complement and give the bread some depth and texture.  I have to tell you, it worked out perfectly. I went looking for recipes out on the ‘net and ended up combining several to get what I wanted.  No more banana monsters for this girl.

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Finocchio.  Italian for Fennel.  But I think of it in my head as “Fin-noch”, as the person who introduced me to it was Sicilian, and they seem to have a habit of dropping the last vowels from words.  She served it in thin wedges, often just handed to you, after a meal as a digestive.  “Mangia, Mangia, the fin-noch, hace la calma de estomago.”  The fennel calms the stomach.  I have no idea if there’s any truth to it, but she believed it did, so we did.  It did seem to make just a bit more room in there for cannoli.  Fennel has made itself known on a much wider scale now. You can buy it in almost any grocery store, and find hundreds of ways to cook and prepare it.  I’m a bit stuck in a rut  with it, repeating favorite preparations over again and again.  I love it sliced thinly into salads, and am crazy for a softly braised version I do, and this one.  But I almost always cut a bit off to nibble on while I’m cooking, you know, to “calma de estomago”.

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Hi!!!!!!!  Finally!  It’s so great being here.  I’ve been thinking about you a lot.  The holidays have come and gone, it’s a new year (!), and I’ve done a little traveling.  Most importantly, the kitchen is finally back in working order.  I can get back to doing what I really love to do, cook, and share it with you. Now I’m sure a few of you were thinking that I just left you flat.  But you were with me at my family’s house for the holidays, and you were more than on my mind in Mexico.  I was there for the First Annual Food Blogger Camp, and it was a blast!  I learned so many things to make what I do here more enjoyable for you, and met a roomful of extremely talented people.  The little kid inside me is just squirming and bursting to say “Guess who I sat next to, you’ll never guess.  Go on guess!  Then I’m like, okay, be cool, just act cool.  Yeah…we all know that’s not me.  Seriously tho’, it was fun, and those other folks?  They were cool.  But enough about me, let’s get back to you!  I can’t wait to hear what you’ve been up to, and what you’ve cooked.  Come on, tell.

I wanted a recipe that tasted like you’d want a new year to taste.  I know it’s late, but still.  This dish is bright, in color and flavor, with a lovely depth and silky mouth feel.  It’s relatively healthy, but so satisfying that you’ll never notice that.  We have so much to do this year, let’s get started….

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…..has led to this.  My beloved  tiny kitchen flooded from a condo renovation upstairs gone wrong.  The floor buckled and has to be replaced, my appliances are visiting the living room, my sink is on hiatus, aaaaacck!  There are no worries, insurance will cover everything, life goes on, cooking will eventually resume.  Now you know the reason for my silence.  It’s been tough to be away from you, but I thought we might have some fun for the next few weeks while everything gets put to right.

Have a favorite recipe you’d like to share?  Send it to me!  Live in the Denver area?  I’ll come to you and take the photos while you cook and talk, and share your story and recipe here.  Come on, help me out!  It would be so great to have you here, and it would (insert dramatic music, watering eyes, and brave sniffles) help keep me occupied while contractors run amok and the cat hides.  Leave a comment with contact info or e-mail me at Clairec@aol.com.  No kidding, it’ll be fun!

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How many holiday parties have you attended already?  It’s December 9th.  Thinking about it,  it’s just about half way through the time for all the festive drinks, nibbles, and potlucks.  If you’re anything like me, I’m already looking for things to save time, be super easy and stress free.  The things I put out for my  much-loved family and friends has to be good.  The food I bring to other’s homes has to get there intact, look great, and above all…taste good.  These stuffed and wrapped dates are pure simplicity, so much so that I feel a bit silly telling you about them ’cause I’m sure you know all about them.  And make them.  But, but, in case there’s one person who reads this and doesn’t know about them, I feel the need to share.  All of these are fast, fool-proof, and incredibly good.  The bacon wrapped version are so good that you see caterers serving them all year long at fancy parties.  They’ve been served as a passed hors d’oeuvre at both my parents 50th anniversary party and my sister’s wedding.  They were sent into the bridal party to keep us all from fainting from the caterer knowing they were a favorite of ours.  The pecan stuffed, powder sugared ones my southern grandmother made at the holidays.  I remember them on a milk glass lacy edged plate. Cream cheese and walnut?  Directly adapted from my childhood memories of mom spreading cream cheese on thick, moist date nut bread and being surprised that a small bite could fill your whole mouth with flavor and richness.  Marzipan stuffed ones.  Yep, marzipan.  For Prince Charming, as I know no other who loves marzipan more than him.  Try it out.  Bring them to the next party.  Pile them on small plates and set them around the room at your next gathering. Everyone will be happy.

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Humble, homey mashed sweet potatoes.  Nothing swoon-worthy or earth shaking there.  Several people I know, including myself, have banned the canned, syrupy pieces covered in more sugar (of various forms), butter, and encased in either mini or giant nightmare making marshmallows.  Stay-puft marshmallow man anyone?  While that casserole bubbles and melts, getting gooey and browned, the thought of it makes my teeth ache while shivers start making their way down my body. Waaaaay too sweet! I know it’s traditional on so many tables, but not on mine anymore.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love sweet potatoes.  I like them just baked, split open and butter melting into it.  I like them pureed and crafted into soup with melted swiss cheese croutons floating on it.  I like them mashed.  Just like this.  This recipe started when I went looking for other sweet potato recipes.  I saw several sweet potato and banana casserole things, a couple of mashed with banana but the proportions seemed way off for my taste.  Then I stumbled on Adam Perry Lang’s recipe.  People were raving about it.  Apparently he wouldn’t give the recipe out for many years, nor would he hint as to his secret formula.  Then he decided to write a cookbook called Serious Barbecue.  It’s a seriously good cookbook that everyone should own.  But wonders of all, his sweet potato recipe was included.  There was dancing in the streets from what I hear.  So I took a look.  And there in front of me was a recipe that I could work with.  I knew right away that I’d be changing things around but he gave me a basis to work off of.  The man is a genius.  Thank you APL.  Now I have a recipe that people are loving.  A recipe that makes people who think they don’t like sweet potatoes go back for second helpings (I’m looking at you, Liv).  A recipe that makes people say “I’ve never really liked sweet potatoes, but I like these!”

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Hitting the Wall

It’s December 1.  Hard to type, even harder to comprehend.  And I’ve already hit the wall.  Thanksgiving is done, Black Friday has passed, lights are twinkling, holiday songs are playing, and it’s even snowing tonight.  But I’ve had enough today.  I feel like I haven’t had time to process it all. The panic is starting to set in, before I actually knew I was panicking!  It’s a tough one this year.  For all of us.  I saw a lot of worried faces this weekend.  A lot of “deer in the headlights” expressions walking through the decorated stores, almost like they couldn’t believe this was happening. I know people are worried, it seems about almost everything.  Many shoulders are feeling the burden of the uncertain and frankly a bit frightening times we’re living right now.  But we’re resilient, people, we really are. We’ll smile, we’ll give thanks again for what we have, we’ll give a helping hand to another in need.  We’ll hear that version of “Santa Baby” playing on the radio that makes us laugh, we’ll get the schedules figured out so we can fit almost everything in, our families and friends will hug and kiss us, the wine will warm us, and all will be okay.  It will, that’s who we are.

But today, I had enough of the holiday food.  I couldn’t bear another cream laden, butter stuffed, maple, marshmallow, pumpkin covered morsel.  I know, I know, there is so much more to come.  And I will be held accountable by many I’m sure of being a contributor to multiple buttons popping and ” Deep breath, pull tight, there!  It fits!” moments.  Guilty.  You will be too.  But tonight I needed something different.  My cells couldn’t breathe.  My little tiny taste buds went on strike.  I want something zingy and fresh.  Something spicy with different textures.  Somehow with 20 degrees and snow outside, salad wasn’t calling my name.  But this was.  Lime-soy Soba noodles.  Vegetables, one roasted, one wilted, a couple barely warm, one raw.  Garlic chile paste to gently burn those taste buds back into action.  Healthy. Light but filling!  No fat!  (ok, well only 1 teaspoon, shhh.)  Sheesh!  I’m starting to sound like Jack LaLane!  You too can do 100 one-handed push ups after eating this meal!  200 if you juice it!  Ha.  Slight exaggeration.  Ok. Huge.  You won’t be able to do any push up unless you could before this dish, and you’re not going to jump up from the table and start singing “Here I am to save the day!”.  But, but…….you might feel a little lighter in spirit.  And I promise, in the midst of all the holiday cakes and pies, drinks and nibbles, shots and sauces we have coming I’ll keep putting these kind of recipes in there.  Something to wake us up, shake it loose, so we can get back to sugar covered gingerbread with a smile.

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