IMBB #16: Summer Fruit Eggstravaganza

Lavender and Pistachio Pavlova

It’s that time again – Is My Blog Burning time, in case you don’t
know – and this month’s host is the Northwestern epicure par excellence Viv of
Seattle Bon Vivant. Viv obviously was craving variety, because she chose one of the most infinitely
adaptable topics imaginable – eggs.
After long and careful deliberation about which preparation would let
my eggs best show off their uniquely ovoid qualities  – after all,
what can’t you make with
eggs? – I settled on a dessert that relies on eggs for its very
foundation. Literally. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pavlova.

And as a matter of fact, there were three birds I managed to kill with
this stone: apart from using the requisite eggs, I managed to try out a
recipe from a hitherto-unused cookbook, and I successfully tried my hand at a dish
I had never made before. The cookbook I used is called The Herbfarm
, written by Jerry Traunfeld, who is the executive chef at the eponymous Herbfarm Restaurant.
The restaurant, located in Woodinville, Washington (near Seattle – the
home of our host, could that be a fourth bird in the bag?), is
regularly listed among the top 50 restaurants in the world, and serves
a seasonal Northwest cuisine based upon the vegetables and herbs grown
on the restaurant’s own land. The composed herb salads, for instance,
are an integral part of every nine-course menu Traunfeld serves, and
are legendary for taking the kitchen help up to two hours to harvest
every morning. I have never had the pleasure of eating at the Herbfarm,
but since buying the cookbook I have been eager to try
out Jerry’s signature
herb-infused dishes. This pavlova in particular stood out, in no small
part for its inclusion of lavender, my self-confessed goût du moment.

I discovered two things in making this: first, pavolvas are a cinch to
make. The instructions for this look long, but there is really nothing
complicated apart from some arm-exhausting eggbeating. The second
thing, is that pavlovas are very
ephemeral. I baked the shell this morning and filled it early this
afternoon to photograph while the light was still good.
This was about four hours ago, and despite putting the remains in
the fridge, what I have now is a soggy, fluffy, fruit-topped omelette.
You might
be able to counter that by drying the shell out more – for example,
Delia Smith recommends you leave pavolvas in the turned-off oven
overnight to completely harden. Otherwise, just plan to finish it on
the spot (inviting friends over may help). In any case, this is a
delightful and
very summery dessert, and the rich, nutty pistachios complement the
subtle perfume of the lavender perfectly. In fact it’s so good, there’s
really no reason to not eat the whole thing straight away.

Lavender and Pistachio Pavlova
Serves: 8-10
Source: The Herbfarm Cookbook by Jerry Traunfeld

For Lavender Whipped Cream:
2 cups heavy cream

4 teaspoons fresh lavender buds, or 2 teaspoons dried

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup superfine/caster sugar

For Meringue:
About 2 tablespoons butter, for the parchment

1 cup raw unsalted shelled pistachios

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 cups superfine/caster sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lavender buds, or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried

6 large egg whites (3/4 cup), at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

For Fruit:
4 to 6 cups mixed berries and/or
sliced fresh fruit (I used strawberries, cherries, physalis (aka cape
gooseberry) and raspberries)

For Garnish:

Small sprigs fresh herbs, such as mint, anise hyssop, lemon balm, etc

and/or small organic/edible flowers, for decoration

1. Infuse the cream. Bring the
cream and lavender to a boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat,
cover, and leave to infuse for 30 minutes. Strain the cream through a
fine sieve, stir in the vanilla, and chill until cold.
2. Make the meringue. Preheat
the oven to 350F/180C. Toast the nuts in the oven for about 10 minutes,
or until just smelling fragrant. Cool. Chop 3/4 cup of the nuts until
medium-fine. Trace a 10-inch circle on a piece of baking parchment,
turn it upside down on a cookie sheet, and butter it lightly. Grind
together the fresh or dried lavender with 1/4 cup of the sugar in a
coffee grinder or food processor. Combine this with the rest of the
sugar and the cornstarch, stirring to eliminate any lumps. Using an
electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar on high
speed until they form soft peaks. Gradually beat in the lavender sugar,
one tablespoon at a time, allowing about 5 minutes to get it all
incorporated. Continue to beat for 2 more minutes. The mixture should
be extremely stiff. Carefully fold in the chopped pistachios.
3. Bake the pavlova. Turn the
meringue out onto the parchment paper and spread it out to fill the
circle you drew. Form it high on the outside and depressed in the
center. Press the reserved whole pistachios around the outside (and
sprinkle with more lavender, if you like). Put the pavlova in the oven
and immediately reduce the temperature to 250F/125C. Bake for about 2
hours. It should be crisp on the outside but still like marshmallows on
the inside. Remove it from the oven and cool completely. If you’re
serving the pavlova later the same day, keep it loosely covered with
plastic wrap; if you want to serve it the next day, wrap the shell
airtight in plastic wrap and store at room temperature.
4. Fill the pavlova. Whip the
chilled cream with the 1/4 cup sugar until it forms firm peaks. Spread
the cream on top of the meringue, leaving a border of about an inch all
around. Arrange the fruit on top of the cream in an informal manner.
Tuck the garnishes here and there among the pieces of fruit. Serve
immediately for best texture; if you must wait keep it loosely covered
in the fridge for up to 2 hours.

Southern Comfort, a la Uncle Ray

Uncle Ray’s Crawfish Tacos

"New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin." – Mark Twain, 1884

What city would you be from if you got excited at the thought of a hurricane, you could buy cocktails without getting out of your car, and you liked your rice as dirty as your politicians?

Ah, New Orleans. When the weather gets warm I can’t help but reminisce about this city I once called home. In what seems like another lifetime of mine I was a local in the Big Easy, my fascination with all things Cajun having motivated me to wrangle a scholarship to attend university there. It certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of sheer strangeness. It also ended up being a little more than I’d bargained for.

My excitement at living in the place where everyone was constantly ‘laissez-ing les bon temps rouler‘ was quickly tempered by the realization that New Orleans is a difficult place to live, in every sense of the word. For six months of the year the weather is punishingly hot, and for the other six the tourists come so thick and fast you can’t step sideways without tripping over one. Cockroaches as big as domestic cats threaten your sanity, while endless hurricanes and floods inevitably seal the deal. The threat of crime haunts your every step and poverty assaults your senses from all sides, the vast derelict shantytowns never more than a step in the wrong direction from the small oases of affluence. New Orleans is also flat, which I found particularly difficult to bear – no lofty mountains framing the horizon, not even a hill to break the monotony, just an endless expanse of concrete and swampland unfolding as far as the eye can see. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for the food, I probably wouldn’t have lasted.

Luckily the food makes putting up with all the rest worthwhile. The first thing that strikes you is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get a bad meal in New Orleans. Local cooks seem to have been born with good taste coursing through their veins. Whether it’s Cajun (from the rural French Acadians who settled here in the early 18th century) or Creole (from the cosmopolitan city-dwellers who subsequently combined French, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences in their cooking), things like blackened catfish, oyster po-boys, shrimp etouffee, jambalaya, chicken sausage gumbo, lobster bisque and dirty rice have to be tasted to be believed. Just don’t ask a local what the difference is between the two styles of cooking – whoever you ask will have the one definitive opinion, and you’ll spend the next half hour or so being indoctrinated into their view of things. Just bathe yourself in the spicy, pungent, savory and complex food, which has been assembled from the best of everyone who’s lived there and emerged as a cuisine a hundred times better than the sum of its parts. As you can imagine, I was soon in heaven.

Nevertheless, there was one Louisiana delicacy I vehemently resisted sampling. Crawfish, known to most of the world as crayfish, happen to also be known in the south as crawdads and – and here you’ll begin to understand my problem – mudbugs. They look like small lobsters and live in muddy, brackish waters such as swamps, estuaries and the enormous bayous of southern Louisiana. Unlike shrimp, crab and lobster, which are just as often encountered shelled, peeled, and therefore harmless, crawfish seemed to appear everywhere as part of a ‘boil’, in steaming brick-red heaps of spindly legs, antennae and bulbous black eyes. I can’t tell you how many times I was given sympathetic if uncomprehending looks at these events from people up to their elbows in fishy-smelling crawfish debris, chins dripping with orange crawfish fat as they sucked the last drops from the decapitated heads (which is de rigeur, by the way) while they asked me why on earth I didn’t partake. I didn’t have much of an answer apart from my sheer revulsion at the prospect of eating something so unashamedly insectoid.

I may have never realized what I was missing if during my final year a small cafe and takeout place hadn’t opened just a few blocks from where I lived. The place was called Kokopelli’s, and it served the hungry local student population with cheap yet sophisticated tacos and burritos. I had eaten there several times, enjoying their fusion creations like Indian vegetable-curry burritos with mango chutney and goat cheese, when I realized they had a few local flavors on their menu, including one immensely popular item called ‘Uncle Ray’s Crawfish Tacos’. It was so popular they regularly sold out of it, which was my first clue, but what finally convinced me to try it was the fact that there was no peeling or decapitating involved, just little pink curls of crawfish meat piled high on crispy corn shells. Curiosity finally getting the better of squeamishness, I tried it, and before I had taken my second bite, I was caught, hook, line and sinker.

Uncle Ray (bless him, wherever he may be) knew how to make one fine taco. Fat succulent crawfish tails had been quickly fried with garlic, chili and cilantro before being layered on the shells with diced red onion, grated sharp white cheddar and sour cream, and liberally doused with a sweet and tangy balsamic vinaigrette. The combination of flavors was like nothing I had ever had before – it was fishy, spicy, tangy, crispy taco nirvana. I also finally understood what all the fuss around crawfish was about. Softer and sweeter than shrimp, they have an intense briny seafood flavor, somewhat like lobster but to my tastebuds even better. What’s more, since they are born and bred in the bayous, they spend very little time in transit to New Orleanians’ plates and boast an incredible freshness and succulence that is hard to find in most commercial seafood. By the time that first taco had been inhaled, I had decided to make up for lost time.

Without batting an eyelid I quickly graduated up to eating crawfish at a boil. You might even say I went on a boil rampage, inviting myself to friends’ of friends backyard parties and eating my way through their crawfish provisions with astonishing gusto. I found out what a great pleasure it is to mercilessly twist apart the spiny heads and bodies and suck out the fishy, fatty juices myself, perhaps even casting sympathetic looks to the new arrivals who eyed the whole ritual with barely contained nausea. I became known as the insatiable crawfish fiend, to the obvious amusement of everyone who had been trying to sneak them onto my plate for years. My zeal was particularly heightened by the knowledge that I had waited too long, and the presence of this abundant delicacy in my life was short-lived, my time in the South being nearly up.

When I finally left Louisiana it was without much regret, as I was exhausted and battle-weary from all the discomforts of living there. The one thing that made me turn back at the airport for one last wistful glance at the city was the thought of all those crawfish I still hadn’t eaten. I knew I would certainly be able to find them in other places, but probably never in their natural state like I had learned to love them, fresh and squirming and ready to be boiled, twisted and sucked. But really that’s okay, since it gives me something to look forward to when one day I venture back. In the meantime, I can always dig up what I need to make Uncle Ray’s crawfish tacos. And for these there’s no head sucking

Uncle Ray’s Crawfish Tacos
Adapted from memories of Kokopelli’s in New Orleans
Serves 4

For crawfish:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds crawfish tails
2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro/coriander
1/2 teaspoon (or more) cayenne pepper (alternatively you can use a good hot sauce – I like habañero)
1/2 lemon

For vinaigrette:
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
salt and pepper to taste

For tacos:
1 red onion, diced
1/2 lb sharp white cheddar, grated
1 1/2 cups sour cream
extra chopped cilantro, for garnish
taco shells, heated in a 250F/125C oven for about 10 minutes (I usually do 4 per person, but you can do more!)

Heat a large frying pan over high heat until very hot. Add half the butter and olive oil and swirl it around. Add half the garlic, stir once or twice, and quickly dump in half the crawfish tails. Sprinkle on half the cayenne pepper. Toss the tails in the pan for about a minute, until they are very fragrant and most of the liquid has evaporated, then quickly stir in half the cilantro, some salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon. Toss once more, then transfer to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining crawfish tails.

For the vinaigrette, combine the ingredients and whisk together until emulsified. Whisk again before serving.

To assemble the tacos, put a layer of crawfish, sprinkle on some onions and cheese, and drizzle with a spoonful of the vinaigrette. Top with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with a little additional cilantro. Eat quickly with lots of napkins and a cold beer.

Note: you can easily substitute shrimp for the crawfish, though I would urge you to do your best to get ahold of crawfish, as that’s what makes this dish really spectacular.

Meme: The Cook Next Door!

I am honored once again to have been tagged, this time by Chefdoc of A Perfect Pear, to participate in Nicky and Oliver‘s new meme entitled The Cook Next Door! I really enjoyed answering these questions, as sifting through my mental archives brought back waves of amusing and heartwarming memories of my (often misguided) attempts to come to grips with my growing passion for all things culinary. There was also a surge in transatlantic familial love inspired by this meme, as my mother, in digging through long-buried albums of my baby pictures, was reminded of just how gosh darn cute I used to be. If only things had stayed that way… 😉

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
I have scattered memories of surreptitiously trying to improve things my parents made (the time I snuck a half-cup of sugar into our chili con carne stands out – I’m still sorry you guys!). I also have fond memories of culinary disasters my best friend and I inflicted upon ourselves at the age of 11 or 12: once we tried to make fudge by combining sugar, butter, milk and Carnation hot chocolate powder and baking it for an hour; when that didn’t work we added oatmeal and hoped we’d end up with brownies. Ugh. My favorite memory, however, has to be the time when, at the age of 13, I spied a new carrot cake recipe on the back of our mayonnaise jar that I just had to make. Unfortunately for me we were packing up our entire house in order to move in a few days, and my parents, who were busy cleaning out the garage at the time, surely would have said no if I’d asked. So I didn’t; I snuck into the kitchen, dug the cake pans and electric beaters out of boxes, ran to the corner grocery store to buy cream cheese and carrots, and proceeded to mix the whole thing up in the bathroom. When it came time to bake I opened all the windows in the kitchen wide so the smell wouldn’t permeate the rest of the house and crossed my fingers. The cake was delicious, but I did have the distinct impression my parents weren’t as surprised as they should have been when I triumphantly brought it out of hiding. At least it was good.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
Julia Child, Martin Yan, and Jeff Smith (aka The Frugal Gourmet). The only time in my life I have gotten up early on the weekends was to watch the PBS heavy-hitters cooking up a storm on Saturday mornings. I’m sure my parents wondered why I couldn’t just watch cartoons like normal kids.

Do you have an old photo as "evidence" of an early exposure to the culinary world?
Yes, as a matter of fact I do. I like to think I was shrieking with delight at being served my favorite meal – spaghetti and meatballs.


Mageiricophobia – do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
I suffer from the fear of one day having to put something to death in my kitchen. I always assumed I’d be able to do it when the time came, but after watching the whole disturbing drama of a lobster being butchered alive on Hell’s Kitchen, I knew I’d never be able to do it myself. Heck, I can barely bring myself to kill spiders (and not from lack of desire…).

What are your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?
Without a doubt, I could not live without my immersion blender. I use it for absolutely everything: pureeing soups, making smoothies, blending pesto, making mayonnaise, frothing milk for cappuccinos… I even discovered it works wonders when making ice cream without a machine – I just take the mixture out of the freezer when it’s semi-frozen, blend away, and the ice crystals miraculously disappear! I also love my iSi cream whipper. Just pour in cream, add flavors to taste, charge with gas cartridge and voila! An endless supply of homemade whipped cream at the press of a button. And of course, I don’t know how I lived without my Soehnle digital scale. You simply can’t imagine how exciting it is to measure your ingredients by the gram until you lay your hands on one of these.

My biggest letdown was probably an expensive French foodmill. I’m just too lazy to clean all those different parts, and anyway my immersion blender does the job almost as well…
Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like – and probably no one else does!
Roquefort cheese and strawberry jam.
Hot apple crisp swimming in cold milk.
Garlic jelly.
Garlic ice cream.
Potato chips on sandwiches (preferably BBQ-flavor Pringles!).

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don’t want to live without?
1. Cheese – any and all kinds.
2. Ice cream (see below).
3. Cashews.

Any question you missed in this meme, that you would have loved to answer?  Well then, feel free to add one!

Your favorite ice-cream…  Chocolate, vanilla, caramel, black cherry, mint-chip, coffee, toasted almond, pistachio, lemon, peach, raspberry cheesecake, cookie dough… I like ice cream.

You will probably definitely never eat…  Fugu. But I’m game for most anything else – at least once.

Your own signature dish…   Probably my fudgy flourless chocolate cake. It’s the request I get most often when offering to bring something for a party!

Added by Chefdoc 
Any signs that this passion is going slightly over the edge and may need intervention?

Number of books owned about Linguistics: 9
Number of books owned about food: 90+
Number of cookbooks I currently have in my shopping basket: 17
Number of times I’ve made a cake in the middle of the night for no good reason: 3
Number of times I’ve secretly made a cake in my bathroom: 1
Number of times Manuel has asked me to seek professional help for my condition: 1 (he says he was joking…)
The numbers say it all.

And added by me…
What’s on your all-time foodie dream list? (gadgets, destinations, restaurants, dishes to try…)
An ice cream maker like this.
Eating trips to Morocco, India, Mexico, Vietnam and Japan.
A chance to eat in some of the world’s finest restaurants, just so I know what all the hype’s about: El Bulli, Pierre Gagnaire, Le Cinq, The Fat Duck, Arzak, Troisgros… *sigh*
I tag:
Julie of A Finger in Every Pie
Santos of The Scent of Green Bananas
Meg of I Heart Bacon