Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dark Chocolate Cashew Clusters

The simplest solution is not always the best one, and complexity ought not to be feared as a general rule, but there are times in which life just seems so messy, so convoluted, so arduous, that I lean full-on into searching for ways to strip away the excesses and find the center.

Summertime tends to be conducive to that sort of thing, of course.  Afternoons at the pool have supplanted homeschool lessons and chores and the like, and dinners constructed from fresh-picked vegetables are the norm.  It just seems right to lighten the load a little.  Less time spent taming the hair with a blow dryer, smaller mountains of laundry to conquer, fewer errands and activities on the schedule.

Less can be more, after all, and as much as I tend to shy away from corny truisms such as that one, it has been Just.  So.  Hot.  lately that I can't help but appreciate the thought of sitting by a fan, putting my feet up, and sipping an iced coffee while pretending to be genteel and unencumbered by the demands of life and parenthood and all that.

You can picture it, right?  Me perched on the porch in a white dress, the Spanish moss dripping from the massive old oak trees, a ceiling fan spinning languidly overhead, and perfect peace and quiet whilst my immaculately-dressed, well-mannered children play a game of croquet together on the manicured lawn?

It could happen.

Until then, though, I will search for simplicity in more realistic places.  Like dessert.

And we have discovered the mother of all completely simple, utterly perfect desserts.  Even better, and easier and faster, than those beloved Peanut Butter Cookies.  Two ingredients.  Less than five minutes.  No oven heating up the house.  Total Perfection.  


When I asked The Carnivore what he might want us to make for him for Father's Day, I was prepared for a complicated answer.  Something along the lines of Pralines or Blue Cheese Meatballs.  Instead, he suggested I make use of the copious amounts of cashews stashed away in our pantry and the dark chocolate chips that he knows I keep no-longer-hidden in the back of the fridge.  "Like turtles," he said, "Except without the caramel."  

"Like nut clusters?" I asked suspiciously.

I thought the idea was a little loopy at first.  It just didn't seem quite right that I could melt a bit of chocolate and stir in some nuts and end up with nice little nut clusters.  Corn syrup seemed like a necessary ingredient, or possibly a candy thermometer would be required.  It just had to be more complicated than he was thinking.  So I did a little recipe research (partly to prove him wrong) and found countless recipes that included excessive quantities of ingredients and overly-cumbersome techniques, but then I came across an utterly simple one and with a little bit of tweaking, we have found our new go-to candy.

By the second batch, I had the nuts-to-chocolate ratio spot-on, and we were head over heels in love, these clusters and The Carnivore and I.  We are partial to cashews around here, and I love and adore any combination that marries salt with dark chocolate, so this kind of thing is right up my alley really.

The simplicity is nearly overwhelming (contradiction in terms notwithstanding).  The recipe goes like this: melt dark chocolate chips in the microwave or on the stove, stir in nuts, drop by spoonful onto wax paper, refrigerate until hardened.

Crazy, right?  These little drops of heaven are mainstays for us now, and we haven't gone a day without a batch in the fridge for going on two weeks.  When we start running low, The Carnivore looks a bit worried for a moment, and then I throw another batch together while doing the dinner dishes. They're THAT easy.

We like them very heavy on the nuts, with just enough chocolate to hold them together, and I'm not above using even the salty nut dust in the bottom of the cashew canister to make them even more dense. I prefer them a bit on the thin and flat side, so that they are easier to bite into, and so that the edges are a bit more delicate to the tooth, but they are just as delicious when piled high and messy-looking. 

The salty-and-bittersweet taste is utterly pure, which is easy to imagine given the short ingredient list, and can be a bit addictive, but since they are so easy and so quick to assemble, and the ingredients can be kept on hand at all times, addiction is nothing to fear in this case.  


DARK CHOCOLATE CASHEW CLUSTERS, adapted from (makes about 20)
  • 11.5 oz package dark chocolate chips (I love the Ghirardelli 60% cacao)
  • 1 1/2 cups cashew halves (or the less expensive halves-and-pieces mix)
  1. In a medium-size mixing bowl, melt the chocolate chips in the microwave (about 2 minutes).  Or, melt the chips in a small pan set over low heat on the stove, stirring almost constantly.
  2. Stir nuts into the melted chocolate.
  3. Drop by small spoonful onto waxed paper, and put in refrigerator until hardened.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fire Hot Pepper Sauce

Methinks I may have become a little obsessed with removing myself from consumer culture.  Anybody could have seen this coming, I suppose, with my recent adventures in making hot sauce and homemade baking powder and blackberry jam and, um, homeschooling my kids, but lately I've gone a bit cuckoo with it all.

I quit using commercial shampoo, conditioner and styling products about a month ago, and have mostly loved the results.  This is not a new concept, mind you, and there is ample anecdotal evidence to be found on using baking soda, vinegar & coconut oil for hair care, but I suspected I would be falling down the rabbit hole if I got started on this myself.

And I did.  Fall down the rabbit hole, that is.  It turns out that the avoidance of commercial products can become a bit addictive.  In a good way, of course, because, as it turns out, my decidedly not-a-hippie hairstylist is so excited about the state of my hair now that she wants to help me spread the word about avoiding sulfates and silicone-derivates.  And, bless her pretty little heart, she even barters with me so that money rarely changes hands between us.  

I consider it a good week indeed when I can bathe using all homemade products, trade out some financial services for a haircut & highlights, buy milk & cheese from a nearby farm, help my mother preserve 300 ears of corn and get sent home with ample amounts to last my family through the next winter, pick blueberries for free on a neighbor's property, wear clothing passed down from friends or purchased at a consignment shop, educate my children using books purchased for next-to-nothing at yard sales, and construct dinner almost entirely out of ingredients from my garden and my mother's and grandmother's gardens as well.

It all sounds a bit cult-like, doesn't it?  I would be urging everyone else to drink the Kool-Aid, too, except that none of this is anything new.  American life existed much this way until the pseudo-modern age of the past 50 years, and I am certainly not a pioneer in the movement to recapture some of that way of life.  But it is fun nonetheless, and I do love that self-satisfying, sock-it-to-the-man feeling of finding ways to live outside of corporate culture.

That, and I'm reading Radical Homemakers right now, which is only encouraging my Laura Ingalls Wilder behaviors.  Now if only I could wean myself off central air conditioning and cable television...

I blame my mother for much of this.  She was a child of the sixties, and was rather young when she had me, so some of these hippie-ish tendencies just came pre-installed on my model, if you know what I mean.  And since I have spent the past thirty-something years following her around her gardens and giving her shopping lists for her yard-sale forays, I benefit from her self-sufficiency largesse.  

Yes, there is such a thing.

Last week, when her hot peppers started coming in, and she made her first batch of Fire Hot Pepper Sauce of the season, she sent me home with a quart-full just in time to placate The Carnivore's urgent request for hot sauce (it has, after all, been entirely too long since I whipped up a batch of my Burn Sauce).  Big Mama's Fire Hot Pepper Sauce is a true hot sauce, and is not vinegar-based like Tabasco or the other commercial bottled brands.  She makes hers almost entirely from jalapeno peppers, though a few Anaheims made their way into this last batch, and she and her kids go through gallons of the stuff every year.  

Note: it is called 'Fire Hot' for a reason.  This isn't the kind of thing a normal person might douse their eggs with, and caution is in order.  Depending on rainfall, heat, and other factors, hot peppers vary in intensity, and every batch of this sauce is ever-so-slightly different.  I don't think I have ever dumped a spoonful of pepper sauce on a taco without first dipping a finger in to test for palate-burning capacity.  A little can go a long way.

I finally slowed Mom down yesterday, and got her to focus on one task (and one task only) for a couple minutes so I could write down her formula for making this sauce.  Enough of her readers have requested it now that it would only be fair to share, after all.  You can thank me later, if you haven't burned a hole in your tongue, that is.


FIRE HOT PEPPER SAUCE, from Big Mama (makes about 1 quart)

Disclaimer: a mixture of peppers could be used, and vinegar could be added (1 Tbs at a time) to add tanginess if so desired, but then it would not be Big Mama's recipe any longer, and she would disapprove, and she would not be afraid to express said disapproval, even in public.
  • 4 cups whole jalapeno peppers
  • salt
  1. In a medium saucepan, add the peppers and enough water to cover.
  2. Bring to a boil, and continue boiling for about 5 minutes, until peppers can be easily pierced with a fork.
  3. Drain peppers, reserving the cooking water.
  4. Remove and discard the stems, leaving the seeds and ribs intact.
  5. Place stemmed peppers in a food processor or blender, and add about 1 cup of the cooking water along with a generous pinch of salt.
  6. Pulse mixture until peppers are minced or fully pulverized, depending on how you prefer, adding more water if needed to achieve desired consistency.  
  7. Taste and adjust salt if needed.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wild Blackberry Jam

One of the great joys of our property has been the blackberry vines that grow alongside our long driveway.  The Carnivore and The Boy Wonder pick a few giant bowlfuls each year, generally providing enough for a cobbler or two, along with a plentiful supply for snacking out of hand.  The nasty drought that we suffered through over the past few summers was tough on these old berries though, and it has been years since the vines have been full with the kind of plump, sweet blackberries that we most adore.

This Spring has brought on the best crop since we moved here in the summer of 2003, and the blackberry season has gloriously stretched out longer than I generally remember it lasting.  Best of all though, we discovered that those thorns we had been trying to eradicate from our front yard were actually more wild blackberry vines, and, after neglecting the yardwork for, oh let's just say a very long time,  we suddenly found ourselves overrun with the sweetest, fattest, most beautiful berries I have seen since the days of my childhood spent foraging in the woods with my mom.

Note: I should take this opportunity to assert my superiority in the field of deferred gratification.  My mother, no matter how many empty bowls she brought with her, has always been incapable of bringing berries home from a picking expedition.   I, on the other hand, have long enjoyed a particular neurosis that allows me to plan ahead, and countless times was able to buy myself out of restrictions by bartering portions of my saved berries to a desperate mother.  Children should take heed.  I know of what I speak.

Here in present times, however, where I am finally able to make the rules, saved berries have little value and are eaten with impunity.  My little family made it through the first week of blackberry season by gorging ourselves on the berries as fast as The Carnivore could pick them.  Little Miss Hazelnut, a clear descendent of that aforementioned mother of mine, would plant her diaper-clad bottom in the middle of the blackberry patch and eat until her entire body was stained with the juice.  It was cute.  At first.

More than one cobbler was made and devoured, and then, two or three weeks into this madness, I returned home from yard sales on a Saturday morning to find another 16 cups of berries sitting in containers on the kitchen counter.

Something had to be done.  And as much as we love and adore and pledge allegiance to our favorite cobbler recipe, I was just itching to try something new, and (wahoo!) there I was with a yard-sale canner and a giant box of small jars on hand .  It was high time to dig through the beloved Southern Living cookbook collection.

I had a mind to try my hand at a jelly or jam or preserves kind of recipe, but was an utter neophyte and really had no idea what to expect, other than a vague tickle that I was going to have to get some pectin or some other such thing.

Really, I was clueless, so you can imagine my utter delight and excitement when I saw a recipe in the 1982 Southern Living for blackberry jam that had only two ingredients: berries and sugar.  The instructions were simple, the time commitment was small, and God help us all, our personal berry supply was neverending.

I had no idea what to expect, and was more than a little nervous about how sweet the end product might be, but oh my stars, we ended up with manna from heaven.  The jam was so good we were licking it off the wooden spoon and burning our tongue in the process.  The texture was old-fashioned, with seeds and unevenly crushed berries, and the level of sweetness was spot on, more tart than sweet, really.  Literally.  Spot.  On.  And it tasted fresh and familiar, like the kind of thing you might have enjoyed at your grandmother's house in the middle of summer back when you were a kid, back before silly little things like seedless jam and citric acid became part of the vocabulary.

We were a little afraid that we had made too much at first, and since I wasn't really feeling up to driving to the store to pick up lids for the new-used jars, I chose to freeze some of the jam, keep some out to enjoy right away, and share the rest of the batch with my mother (as a proactive measure in case she threatens to ground me anytime soon), my grandparents, and my friend that had an upcoming birthday.

I shouldn't have worried, of course.  I made slightly-burned, brick-like whole wheat biscuits the next morning, and our little family went through the first jar of jam in one sitting, ending with Little Miss Hazelnut sticking her entire hand in the jar to scrape out the remainder.  Most surprisingly though, was that the portion that had been frozen and subsequently thawed still retained the fabulous texture of the original batch.

We are a little bit in love with this jam, and I went out today to purchase jar lids for the sole purpose of making a few more pints to put up before the season ends.  Because as quickly as it begins, the abrupt end of blackberry season is always a bit of a shock, though we can always take heart that blueberry season comes right on it's heels...


BLACKBERRY JAM (adapted from Southern Living, makes about 3 pints)

  • 9 cups (about 4 lbs) crushed blackberries
  • 6 cups sugar
  1. Combine berries and sugar in a large, heavy pot, such as a Dutch oven.
  2. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves.
  3. Boil at a medium heat for 30 minutes to an hour, stirring frequently, until jam reaches desired consistency, taking care to avoid splatters (man, they hurt).  
  4. Freeze, can, or share as you see fit.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Fennel & Tart Apple Salad

Summer snuck up on me this year, and it took a little longer than usual to decompress from the rush of The Boy Wonder's daily lessons and busy activity schedule.  But this week, all of a moment really, I slowed down a bit and stopped pushing so hard at life.

It is June now, after all.  Time for afternoons at the pool, Saturday mornings at the farmer's market, stolen moments in the garden, less complicated meals, and most of all, time for a little breather from our homeschool curriculum.

Time to finish up some of the loose ends from kindergarten, to dig around on Ebay for our first grade materials, and time to evaluate my own expectations.  Truly, I think I learned as much from kindergarten as The Boy Wonder did.  I can see the fascination of science through the eyes of a six-year-old now, and I am able to join in the wonder and suspense as a little boy hears The Story of Doctor Dolittle read aloud for the very first time.

It hasn't all been fun and games, of course.  I also joined in the frustration of learning how to sound out words in which letters make different sounds than a young mind might expect, and we both had to dig down deep to come up with the necessary patience to learn how to coordinate pencil and paper to form letters and numbers when little hands would prefer to doodle.

But we did it.  Together we made it here, to the other side of kindergarten, where The Boy Wonder can read, can swim without a life jacket, and can manipulate a fork and a butter knife to cut a pancake into manageable, polite bites.

We feel like superheroes.  Superheroes on vacation, that is.

Like I said, it is summertime now, and we are splitting our time between the garden, the pool, and the craft table at home.  There is much less time for slowly-simmered soups and very little desire for elaborate dinners.  Our menus tend to follow the seasons and our little garden has cooperated nicely, providing beautiful, variegated lettuces for our salads and fresh herbs for our pasta; and as the variety of available produce has grown by leaps and bounds at Athens Locally Grown, we have started reintroducing a few sorely missed vegetables to our table.

God Bless the baby squash.

This year though, with the gaping void left by my ill-conceived decision to not rejoin our beloved CSA, I have been searching for new challenges in the kitchen and while there have been the predictable misses, there have also been a few pleasant surprises.  This fennel and apple salad sits squarely atop our list of recent winners.

Fennel is an odd thing, really, a little too hip for my taste in some ways, and a bit too assertive in the first few recipes that I attempted, but a lovely herb when used properly.  Fennel is often described as tasting of licorice, which can sound a bit off-putting really, but the crunchy texture and refreshing flavor of the bulb is perfect for summer.  Besides, the word 'licorice' doesn't properly capture the flavor.

Of course I cannot describe it any better myself.  The words 'clean' and 'crisp' comes to mind, but that falls a little short when trying to evoke a sense memory of a food.  Suffice to say though, that fennel marries perfectly with tart apples and a simple, well-emulsified vinaigrette.  This salad is really quite beautiful on the plate and pairs well with rich, velvety sauces and, my favorite, cheese plates.

Yesterday, when The Carnivore worked late, my desk was piled with time-sensitive work, it was hot and humid, and the kids and I were in town picking up our food order during the time we normally prepare dinner, this salad came to the rescue.

From the bags of food I brought home, I pulled out a fresh baguette to slice, toast and drizzle with olive oil.  We already had creamy Brie on hand, along with an imposing hunk of strong, stinky blue cheese, and I was lacking only for something light, green, and, yes, crisp to temper the richness of the cheeses.

Voila.  I had picked up a few bulbs of fennel with my order and it only took a couple minutes to slice some apples and the fennel, make the vinaigrette and toss it all together.  We had the perfect summer dinner.  Perfect even for a family of varying tastes, but the biggest surprise was how well The Boy Wonder took to this salad.  He ate two or three servings for dinner, and asked for it again for breakfast.

Maybe I should add that to our list of kindergarten accomplishments:  reading, swimming, and fennel appreciation.


FENNEL AND TART APPLE SALAD, serves 8, adapted from Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home

  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon, or 1 tsp dried tarragon
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tart green apples (such as Granny Smith), sliced thinly
  • 2 bulbs fennel (not the leafy part), sliced thinly
  1. In a large bowl, add the lemon juice and tarragon.  Slowly whisk in the olive oil in a steady stream, and add salt & pepper to taste.
  2. Add the apple and fennel to the bowl, and toss well.  
  3. Best served at room temperature.