Category Archives: Techniques

Exploring cooking techniques

A New Tangent

food dyed woodIt’s been a few millennia, at least in computer years, since I last posted. I’m sure you are wondering what I’ve been up to, why I haven’t been sharing photos, recipes, etc. The truth is I’ve been off on a spectacularly long tangent, possibly branching off to another tree entirely.

The things I am making now are meant to be savored and chewed over, but not swallowed. For the last year I’ve been writing poetry, and turning my poems into visual works of art. I’ve wanted to share, but wondered whether I should start a new blog all together.

But I’m still very fond of kitchentangents, and since much of my art is done in the kitchen, as the sunniest, most spacious room in my house, I think it is still relevant to this sharing space. It might even embody the very essence of kitchentangents!

Leaping from branch to branch can be a bit scary, so I’ll start us off slowly with something familiar, a recipe. However, it’s a recipe for something to play with, not eat.

I’ve adapted it from eHow’s How to Use Food Coloring to Dye Clothes. It’s a nice way to add color to toys and projects for kids because it’s non-toxic. After I adapted the recipe, I noticed they do have a how to for dying wood that does not involve boiling, but I’m not sure it results in such lovely, intense colors. If you try either method, let me know!

Using Food Coloring to Dye Untreated Wood:
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons vinegar
Food coloring
Light colored, untreated wood such as popsicle sticks, toothpicks, wooden ornaments, toys, small frames, or any sort of raw wood remnants

1)   Mix just the water and vinegar in a non-porous bowl such as stainless steel or glass.

2)   Add wood items to the mixture and soak for 30 minutes. Weigh them down with something if they float.

3)   After soaking, remove wood items. Add food coloring until the water is a few shades darker than the color you want. If you are dying small items, or if you want multiple colors, divide the vinegar water into smaller portions before adding colors. Don’t use too small of an amount though since it will be simmering for a while.

4)   Put wood items and color water into a saucepan on the stove top and turn heat to Medium. When it starts to simmer, turn heat down to Medium Low. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.coloring wood with food dye

5)   Turn off heat and let cool to room temperature. If you want more intense colors, let it soak overnight. They will be lighter once they dry.

6) To mix colors, you don’t have to go through the whole routine again. Just take the pieces that soaked overnight and add them to another color for a few minutes. It doesn’t take any time while it’s still wet.

7)   Once cooled, rinse until water runs clear. Dry on a paper towel on a non-staining surface. Dry completely before using.food coloring tie dye

I just love the pretty colors.

food dyed wood ends

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You may not want to hug the bug on your plate, but embrace it nonetheless

… Several years ago, in a reputable Thai fusion place not far away …

Halfway through dinner one evening I was appalled to find an inchworm doing its cute little humpbacked crawl through my noodle salad. The waiter was not sympathetic. “Our produce is all organic,” he sniffed.

I’m not particularly squeamish. I grew up a small town farm girl, and always tell my girls, “Dirt don’t hurt.”

I’m also a firm believer in the many benefits of organic produce, but that doesn’t excuse skimping on washing before service. When I insisted on a refund he just shrugged and took my plate away. Only half my meal was comped, and I walked out hungry after eating half of a worm’s playground. I hoped he wasn’t missing any friends.

The little incher wasn’t as big and hairy as this guy from the pumpkin patch last fall, but still. That was my first, and last time at this unnamed Sacramento restaurant.

… Flash forward, but not too far, to last week on my living room couch …

I read an article by Harold McGee in Issue 3 of “Lucky Peach” talking about “Handling Herbs.” Spanking mint as opposed to muddling it for mojitos to ‘liberate its minty essence without over-damaging the cells and eliciting a vegetal quality’ was a surprising tip, but I was most intrigued by his discussion of how bugs can make organic produce healthier and even taste better.

Maybe that’s why my backyard sage is so wonderful…

According to McGee, the flavors of herbs and spices come from the chemicals they make and store for chemical warfare against bugs, animals, and microbes. You wouldn’t munch on a cinnamon stick because it doesn’t taste good on its own, but if you simmer apple cider with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks, the resulting infusion is autumn comfort in a cup.

Thus, if a plant is damaged by pest invasion, that sends a message to boost its chemical defenses (aka antioxidants, aka flavor). McGee suggests reconsidering buying the less-than-pretty bug-eaten produce at the farmer’s market as it may be tastier and healthier than it’s more presentable neighbors. (!)

I’ve often heard food is only as good as the soil it’s grown in, but this was the first I’d heard that bugs can actually improve a plant’s nutrients and flavor. I guess it’s true for people and plants alike; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

… And then, at a restaurant recently nominated for a James Beard award …

I had my second meet and greet with an unexpected critter in a restaurant setting. A few minutes upon arrival, while admiring the trays of artfully laid black trumpet mushrooms, locally grown oranges, key limes, and Persian cucumbers, I spotted a tiny mite-like thing crawling near my place setting. I wasn’t offended, but I didn’t really want to share my dinner with him, so I asked my husband to “get it.” He brushed his thumb over it, leaving a dark brown paint stroke on the white linen. I didn’t bother mentioning it to the waiter, and the entire meal was unforgettably decadent.

… Checking out the rearview …

I doubt that Thai-fusion waiter was up on his McGee so many years ago, but maybe I’ll reconsider my boycott. I’m can’t say I’m ready to slurp a scorpion lollipop like these insect treats we discovered at Pismo Beach last summer, but maybe it’s not such a bad sign if a healthy critter hops on my plate.

What do you think?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

10 Reasons to Rediscover Cauliflower

Yes, I think the cauliflower would creep quietly in. Its chaste, slightly coy presence makes this a vegetable that would never shout its qualities. ~Nigel Slater, Tender Greens

I’ve never heard anyone shouting from the rooftops about their endless love for cauliflower. Nor does it have the detestable reputation of brussels sprouts, lima beans, and the like. I don’t remember having much of an opinion at all about cauliflower, until I began my quest to increase the ratio of produce on my plate.

Guilt began creeping in whenever I would indulge in making my all-time favorite comfort food, homemade macaroni & cheese. At some point the idea of vegetables and cheesy, bubbly goodness merged (long before I ever considered this dilema.) Cauliflower, I remembered, is commonly coated in cheese sauce. I began substituting part of the pasta with chunks of steamed cauliflower. When I went on my gluten-free streak, I departed from pasta all together.

The funny thing is, I found I actually liked it. Yes, there will always be a special place in my heart for a big bowl of noodles. But whenever I replace a processed food with a vegetable, it makes the dish seem so much more a-live. A little sweet, a little nutty, a nicely cooked piece of cauliflower is a beautiful thing.

Here are my top ten reasons why this underappreciated, white-headed stepchild is worth a second look:

1)    Even though it’s not a dark leafy green, cauliflower is healthier than you might expect.

Whole Foods adopted Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI scoring system to help shoppers make healthier choices. Their website has listings of these scores. Anything below 50 is considered not-so healthy. Kale, mustard and collard greens score 1,000, the highest possible. Cauliflower scores 295, which is higher than tomatoes, butternut squash, and any of the top listed beans, fruit, nuts and seeds, or whole grains.

2) Cauliflower is relatively cheap.

Prices range anywhere from $1-2 a pound, or even less depending on season and availability.

3) It’s available almost year round, and not just because of cold storage.

It is known as more of a cool weather vegetable, but varieties of cauliflower are in season all year long, except July and August.

It’s best to buy it whole. Curds should be tight, and even if you don’t eat the leaves they tell the story of how long it’s been since harvest.

4) It’s easy to grow in most climates.

Cauliflower can be grown in the winter in mild climates, and in spring and autumn in cooler areas. It will withstand light freezing. (For this information I consulted “The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide.” It has brief, but handy little descriptions for growing most herb and vegetables.)

I planted my very first “cheddar” cauliflower this last fall. It wintered nicely, and is now engaged in some interesting sprouting activities.

5) There are some interesting varieties to explore.

Besides plain old white, other colors that occur in nature (not dyed!), include green, purple, and orange. I don’t notice any major difference in flavor, although reportedly these other varieties don’t have as much of the bitterness that can be present in the standard white. (Personally I think that may have more to do with freshness.)

Nutritionally speaking, orange cauliflower has 25 times the level of vitamin A, and the purple in cauliflower is caused by the same anti-oxidants found in purple cabbage and red wine (according to wiki).

Green, turreted Romanesco was clearly cultivated beneath the red clouds of Mars. This is probably my favorite variety, just because of it’s dramatic, unearthly presence. Oh, and it tastes good too. This beauty came in my FFTY CSA box.

6) Cauliflower cooks with little fuss or fanfare.

Cut into 1” pieces and steam for about 7 minutes (in a large, covered bowl with a little water in the microwave, stirring frequently) then season or add a flavorful sauce. Or, sauté bite-sized pieces for 6-7 minutes over medium heat in a little butter or olive oil till the florets begin to brown, then braise- add a small amount of flavorful liquid and cover for a few more minutes till tender.

7) It is quite versatile, culinarily speaking.

Not sure what to do with it? Recipes abound! Puree it (the better to sneak more veggies into your unsuspecting kids’ dinners because of its neutral color and flavor, my dear!) Roasted, pickled, sautéed, gratin-ed, raw, etc. So many possibilities, so little time.

And of course, cauliflower is a good replacement for pasta – this vegetable is made for cheese sauce. (Check out my gluten-free, dairy-free cauliflower gratin here.)

8) We all need to eat more vegetables anyway.

Michael Pollon said it most succinctly: Eat (real) Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. ‘Nuff said.

9) It’s highly photogenic.

Even from the back.

10) Why does there always have to be 10? Ok, fine. Here’s my latest cauliflower recipe for you to sample:

Simple Curried Cauliflower

Ingredients:

1 head cauliflower, any color
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp paprika
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
¼ cup water, or so
salt to taste

Directions:

1)    Heat oil in a large skillet to medium high heat. While the pan is heating, trim off stem and cut cauliflower into bite-sized pieces.

2)    When the oil is hot but not smoking, add garlic. Cook just till garlic begins to brown, then add cauliflower.

3)    Sautee cauliflower for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add water, and cover till cauliflower is tender and water is mostly gone. Add a little more water if necessary to achieve desired toothsome-ness.

4)    Season with garam masala, paprika, and salt to taste. Finish with red wine vinegar and remove from heat. Serve warm.

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Filed under Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Picky Eaters Anonymous, Techniques

Ode to Kale

When I first got kale in my CSA box last winter, I was a little intimidated. Tough, leathery greens, stiff stalks, essence of bitter seaweed, are you sure this is good for me? According to my Whole Foods grocery sack, kale and collards score 1,000, the highest nutritional value you can get from a single food. I don’t normally take health advice from a paper bag, but it is a rather impressive number. My only question was, how could I make it taste good?

I’ve heard of some interesting techniques when it comes to winter greens. Massaging the leaves with salt to make them tender sounds ridiculously intimate and labor intensive. Just the other day I read about brining kale so you can create a wilted salad with a creamy vinagrette, not a bad idea if you are into raw food. (I personally haven’t had a raw kale salad I’ve been able to smile through.) Last winter I made a chard pesto that was divine (recipe here). I’ve also tried roasting kale to make crispy  “kale chips.” Those were actually pretty tasty, but the recipe I used needs finessing to evenly distribute the seasoning, a project for another day.

My favorite method I’ve adapted is quick, it takes about 20 minutes, and is reminiscent of Southern greens. I eat it for breakfast because I’m the kind of weirdo that prefers olives to doughnuts at 7 a.m. Popeye ain’t got nothing on me!

Simple Southern Style Kale

1 bunch kale
½ onion, diced (optional)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup broth or water
2-3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet to medium heat. Cook onion, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes until softened and starting to brown.

Remove thick stalks from kale and discard. (You can chop up the stalks and cook these too, but it takes longer to soften them. I’m not usually that patient.) Roughly chop kale and add to the onions.

Sautee for a few minutes stirring frequently until it starts to wilt down.

Add broth or water and cover the pan (I use my pizza pan as a lid since my large skillet didn’t come with one). Cook for about 5-10 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally. 

Turn off the heat and add apple cider vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Crispy bacon bits or diced ham and a glass of orange juice make this a complete breakfast.

Ode to Kale

lacy, leathery dragon wings
bitter turned sweet
by heat, vinegar, and salt

Popeye’s no match
for my breakfast Knock Out

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Filed under Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

Thanksgiving Improv

This post may seem a bit after the fact seeing as Thanksgiving is over. In my defense, it involves leftovers, super quick roasted nuts perfect for any occasion, and an epiphany: Jazz and Thanksgiving are soul mates.

Jazz by nature is so fluid it resists definition, but I tried anyway. Jazz could be defined as two conflicting cultures finding beauty in each other’s musical traditions, an embrace that results in music new, surprising, and glorious.

Thanksgiving could be defined as two conflicting cultures brought together by their mutual celebration of the harvest bounty (so the story goes).

Solidly rooted North American traditions, both are the result of two cultures in direct competition finding a common ground through art. Through mingling, new culinary and musical legacies were born.

I’m not sure exactly why jazz came into play. I wanted to write about Thanksgiving, but have been singing mostly blues notes as of late. There is so much to be thankful for, but instead of the usual lilting melody, this restless body is composing a cacophony that doesn’t match the love in my life.

Maybe I need to reinterpret my time signature. Just because it is dark when I wake, and dark when I leave work doesn’t mean there is less leisure time. Dark spaces feel smaller, but that’s what flash lights and desk lamps are for.

There is one thing that usually makes me feel better. In the jazz lexicon it would be called improvisation through syncopation; being open to new melodies (aka a dish) by using an unexpected deviation (combining ingredients not usually combined).

I set out on a culinary mission last weekend with that very thought in mind. Winter squash and nuts were the riff (repeated refrain). My plan was to make Maple Chipotle Nuts, and my very first homemade pumpkin pie. I began by making the nuts, and roasting and pureeing a sugar pumpkin. As I set out to make a pie the next day, it seemed only natural to make a Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie. The real surprise was my latest creation, an Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Nuts is a recipe I adapted from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op biweekly ads. I first made them as part of a clean-out-the-freezer project, and have since made them three times in the last week and a half. They are sweet, a little spicy, and seriously addicting.

Maple Chipotle Nuts

1 pound unsalted raw nuts (any mix of pecans, green pumpkin seeds aka pepitas, almonds, walnuts, peanuts)
1 cup maple syrup
¼ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1)   Heat oven to 325. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

2)   Mix maple syrup and brown sugar in a small microwave safe bowl. Heat in microwave till sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Stir in chipotle powder, salt, and pepper.

3)   Combine nuts and maple syrup mixture. Stir till evenly coated. Spread nuts on lined baking sheet.

4)   Bake 6-7 minutes. Stir, then bake another 6-7 minutes till bubbly. Put nuts in a heat safe bowl and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to break them up.

5)   There’s plenty to snack on, sprinkle on a salad with bleu cheese or feta, and make Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie

Even though it was my first time making a pumpkin pie, that didn’t stop me from tweaking the recipe. (Never does!) I got a small sugar pumpkin in my CSA box a couple of weeks ago, and finally got around to doing something with it. My 8 year old loves pumpkin pie, and begged me to make one. I warned her I was going to put nuts on top, but she could take them off. She allowed me to proceed.

You can use any piecrust you like. I used the “No Fear Pie Crust” from Cook’s Country. (This is a subscription website, but this particular recipe is free! Although it might be just be free during the holidays.) I highly recommend it. I took the recipe title for granted, and let my three year old help me make it with great results. Also, it stayed nice and crisp even though it took us a few days to finish the pie.

The filling I used is another free one from Cook’s Country, their “Pumpkin-Praline Pie.” You can click on the link or just follow my simplified instructions:

In a medium saucepan, combine:

15 oz plain pumpkin puree (canned or homemade)
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
pinch ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt

1)   Once all the filling ingredients are in the pan, turn heat to medium high. Stirring frequently, heat till bubbling and thickened, about 4 minutes.

2)   Remove from heat and whisk in 1 cup evaporated milk, 3 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

To finish the pie:

1)   Pour filling into warm piecrust. (The filling is actually a little too much for a 9” pan. Save the leftovers! I’ve got a great use for it down the screen.)

2)   Bake at 350 till the filling puffs up, and barely jiggles at the center, about 35 minutes.

3)   Top with Maple Chipotle Nuts, then bake another 10 minutes or so until toasty, and you just can’t handle the aroma-torture any longer.

4)   Let cool on a wire rack till set, 2 hours or so.

Next time I make this pie, I plan to kick up the spice by putting a little chipotle powder into the filling.

Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie

So, you may be wondering where the acorn squash comes in. I’ve had this beautiful Carnival acorn squash on my table as a fall decoration for a few weeks. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

But, when I made the piecrust, I realized I didn’t have any pie weights (because they would get used less often than my children ask for a bath). So, I improvised. I used a foil-lined pie tin with half an acorn squash to weigh down the crust and roast it at the same time. I put the other half face down in another pie pan, and essentially killed two birds with one stone.

But wait, there’s more! Once the acorn squash starts to caramelize, and is tender enough for a fork to pierce easily, flip it over and pour the rest of the pumpkin pie filling in the center. Bake another 10-20 minutes until the filling is set. This would be great in a butternut, or any other squash you like to prepare on the sweeter side.

Back to the Blues:

Maybe I need to take this syncopation thing more seriously. One way of making an unexpected deviation in music is with a rest where a stress is expected. Slowing my tempo makes sense, but seems impossible. Family life means trying to synchronize the rhythms of four people into one composed day, every day. Of course I can stop doing the extras I love (like writing, baking, little things that help me maintain sanity), but I can’t not participate in my family’s song. How do you do it all, or stop trying to do it all?

In jazz, some songs use a call-response format. The lead singer will sing an improvised line or two, and the chorus responds with a refrain. As the lead singer in this scenario calling to you, the chorus, what do you do when you find yourself singing the blues?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Culinary Travels, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties, Techniques

Interview with Middle Grade Author Dawn Lairamore, and “Chocolate Fairy Cakes,” an Ivy-Inspired Recipe

I am very honored to share with you my conversation with middle grade (books for 8-12 year olds) author, Dawn Lairamore. Dawn’s debut novel, Ivy’s Ever After, was released in 2010, and named A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year in 2011.

Her follow-up book, Ivy and the Meanstalk, was just released October 2, 2011. She describes her books as fractured fairytales. (I just love the imagery in that expression.) They are fun, spirited stories that whisk you away with Ivy, a fourteen-year-old princess whose love of books and the outdoors inspire high adventure with the most unlikely of friends, Elridge, a rather un-ferocious and smaller than average dragon. Together, they find their fire to help save their kingdom (and themselves from conventions that just don’t fit.)

Isabella, my 8 year old, liked Ivy’s Ever After so much we read it twice. We had recently started reading the Harry Potter series, but she insisted on taking a break from it when I brought home Ivy and the Meanstalk.

Also, to give you a little background on this latest tangent, i.e. how a food blog comes to interview a children’s author whose books are completely unrelated to food: I met Dawn through SCWBI, a wonderful organization for children’s book authors and illustrators. They organize fantastic conferences and networking opportunities locally, on up to the international level.

I joined SCBWI because I’m developing a kid’s cookbook that encourages picky eaters to explore fruits and vegetables. My obsession with produce stems from my own pickiness. At 18 months old, my daughter started refusing to eat anything green. I challenged myself to find ways to prepare a greater variety of vegetables so that I actually like them as a way to provide a better example for her. It has been quite effective! She gets just as excited when I make artichokes as she does when I make cookies.

To celebrate Meanstalk’s release, I thought it would be fun to create a recipe inspired by Ivy. “Oh, fairy cakes!” is a charming little expression used throughout both books (in the same way as one would say, “Oh, darn it!”).  My kid-friendly recipe for “Chocolate Fairy Cakes,” made in a magical, most unconventional way (in the microwave), will follow the interview.

Dawn’s books are not about food, but in true kitchentangents style, I couldn’t help but ask her about my favorite subjects: writing, food, and the little things that make life sweet.

On Writing:

kitchentangents:  In both of your books, you’ve taken a familiar fairytale and turned it on its ear. In Meanstalk, (a riff on Jack and the Beanstalk) rather than Jack being a lucky boy who gets his hands on some magic beans and treasure from a kingdom in the clouds, you tell the story with more sympathy towards the giant whose treasure was stolen.

What inspired you to write this kind of story?

Dawn Lairamore: I love fairy tales, but I also love stories that do the unexpected or have some sort of twist, which is why I’m often drawn to retellings of traditional tales.  A very common fairy tale motif features a princess being saved from a dragon or other monster by a handsome prince or courageous knight.  I thought, what if the princess wasn’t so helpless and was perfectly capable of rescuing herself?  What if the dragon wasn’t a ferocious beast but a timid creature with a heart?  What if the handsome prince wasn’t a hero but a villain?

And what if the princess and the dragon actually teamed up against him?  And so, Ivy’s Ever Afterwas born—a fairy tale about a princess seeking out her own “ever after,” rather than having one thrust upon her.  Ivy and the Meanstalk continues that idea of twisting a traditional fairy tale.  Jack and the Beanstalk has always been my least favorite fairy tale, because Jack never seemed like much of a hero to me.  He seemed a lazy, thoughtless boy who stole and did some other not-so-nice things.  So Meanstalk is my revisitation of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale with a rather dim view of Jack.

kt:  I was so excited when I found out we share a common profession (paralegal by day, creative writer by night). It’s reassuring to know that not all artists are starving, and that it is possible to have a creative life even if you have a not-so-imaginative day job. Do you have any advice for balancing work demands with creativity?

DL:  Make writing a priority!  So many people would like to write but find that life gets in the way.  It’s so easy to let other demands pull you from a little time to yourself to work on a chapter or a few paragraphs.  But if writing is close to your heart, you have to make time for it the way you would any other important task or job, even if that means putting off doing the laundry for another afternoon or turning down the odd lunch invitation so you can park in front of your computer and write.

kt:  How often do you write creatively? Do you have a scheduled time, or are you more of a go-when-the-creative-juices-flow style of writer?

DL:  Schedule, schedule, schedule!  I think it’s the best way to absolutely make sure you have time to dedicate to writing.  I try to schedule at least several hours every week where I have no other demands on my time and I can focus solely on writing.  Of course, sometimes inspiration strikes at random and odd moments, and you just *have* to sit down and write!

kt:  Writing is very much about painting a picture in your reader’s mind with specific, meaningful details.

“They sailed over the broad windowsill and into a vast hallway that stretched as far as a hay field in either direction. Suits of armor as tall as ships’ masts stood at attention against the walls, along with iron candelabras the size of tress.”

Your stories are very easy to visualize, and yet move along at a nice clip (as a good adventure story should). Are there any editing secrets you can share that you use to strike a nice balance between action and detail?

DL:  This is a tough one because some readers–like me–love detail, but some find a lot of detail distracting and would rather a story focus on more “urgent” components like action or dialogue.  I think, as a writer, you have to do what feels right for the story.  I felt that the Ivy books, being fantasy/fairy tales with some rather fantastical and magical settings, warranted special attention to setting and detail.  But, yes, you have to be careful not to overdo it.  Description and detail shouldn’t overpower other elements of the story.

As far as action, young readers often have a shorter attention span than adult readers, so I think stories for young readers especially need to move at a good pace.  When writing for this age range, I think it does help to focus on the external (actions and events) over the internal (thoughts and emotions).  Don’t get me wrong–the internal *has* to be there, emotions and conflict have to be part of the story, but perhaps not at same level as you’d expect in an adult book.  Long internal monologues or scenes where characters reflect upon their feelings probably isn’t going to fly too well with a middle-grade audience.

kt:  How was writing Meanstalk different from Ivy Ever After? Was it any easier the second time around?

DL:   It did feel a little easier, actually.  I had already spent a good deal of time with these characters, so I didn’t have to get to know them the way I did when I was writing the first book.  We were already great friends!

kt:  I would love to ask what you are working on now, but I don’t want to spill the (magic) beans!

On Food:

kt:  There seem to be a fair number of pies, cakes, and giant gooseberry tarts in your stories. What was your inspiration for the food you describe?

DL:  The Ivy stories are fairy tales at their core, so they’re not meant to take place in any real-world, historical time period.  That being said, Ivy’s world felt very medieval to me, what with the castles and swords and suits of armor, so I researched medieval recipes and used a lot of what I found for inspiration.  And, of course, I think food in a fairy tale should have an appropriately fantastical and feast-like quality to it.

kt:  If you could try any of the food in your books, which would it be?

DL:  I’ve never tried a gooseberry tart–or a gooseberry anything–so I’d go with that.  I love experiencing new tastes!  Elderberry is a flavor mentioned in the book as well, and I had never tried anything elderberry until recently, when a friend of mine brought me a bottle of English elderberry cordial back from her vacation.  Delicious!

kt:  Are your food preferences similar to any of your characters’?

DL:   Well, I certainly don’t want to catch and eat wild goats like the dragons!!  The food served in the castle is probably more along the lines of my tastes.  I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to trying new foods (within reason), so I might even go for the roast pigeon that was served at the feast at the beginning of Ivy and the Meanstalk. (I had read that roast pigeon was often served in medieval times while researching foods of that period.)

kt:  This is a very important question. If you had to choose, which is your absolute favorite: Dark, milk, or white chocolate?

DL:  Milk chocolate.  Not as bitter as dark chocolate or as sweet as white.  Just right.

kt:  On a similar note: If you had to choose between savory and sweet, which would you prefer? In other words, if you had to choose between your favorite dinner, say lasagna, and your favorite dessert, say chocolate cake, and you could only have one, which would you pick?

DL:  Probably the dinner. My sweet tooth kind of comes and goes.

kt:  What is your comfort food?

DL:  French onion soup with toasted sourdough bread when the weather is cold; a big bowl of chilled, juicy, sweet ripe watermelon when the weather is hot.

kt:  If we could sneak a peek, what would we find in your refrigerator as we speak?

DL:  Lot and lots of microwavable dinners.  I appreciate good food, but chef I am not!

On The Little Things:

kt:  What were your favorite stories or authors while you were growing up?

DL:  The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.

kt:  What kinds of things do you like to collect?

DL: Books!!!

kt:  What smells or tastes remind you of childhood?

DL:  My dad was in the military when I was growing up, so my family moved a lot and lived in a lot of different places.  We moved to the Philippines when I was a year old, so my earliest memories are of our time there.  I associate many tastes of that region with my childhood.  I remember getting my face and fingers all sticky with mango and guava, and sucking on fresh, raw sugar cane.

kt:  When you like to treat yourself, what do you do?

DL:  So many things–sleep in or take a nap in the middle of the day (I don’t get to do either very often), have a lazy day where I do nothing but read a good book, visit someplace beautiful where I can take a long walk in gorgeous scenery.  Shopping is always good, too, or treating myself to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants.

kt: Thank you so much for sharing with us Dawn! Where else can we find you (links, bookstores, etc.)?

DL:  I hope your readers will visit my website: www.dawnbooks.com.  Here you can read chapters from both Ivy books, watch the book trailer, and see all sorts of fun stuff, including some “behind the scenes” info about the books. You can also visit my author page at Amazon.com.

And for our final course, Dessert!:

Fortunately for us topsiders, this dessert fit for the fairy realm is almost as easy to make as waving a magic wand. This bit of domestic magic is performed entirely in a microwave. It properly serves two princesses or princes. If a dragon guest comes to call, it may do to conjure up at least twenty.

It’s particularly important with this recipe to always level your measurements!

Chocolate Fairy Cake:

2 Tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon milk
3 Tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
3 Tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla

1)    In an oversized teacup (or cereal bowl, but something with high sides is best), melt chocolate chips, butter, and milk in the microwave for 20 seconds. Don’t stir it quite yet, just let it cool while you work your magic.

2)    In a separate bowl swirl together flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda.

3)    In yet another bowl whisk egg first till uniformly yellow, then twirl in sugar & vanilla until golden brown.

4)    Now stir melted chocolate chip mixture until dark and glossy. Add egg mixture to the chocolate (use a spatula to get all the eggy goodness out of the bowl), and stir till smooth. Sprinkle in dry ingredients and blend with a fork till there are no lumps in sight.

5)    Microwave for 1 minute, possibly another 10-15 seconds, but stop once about half of the cake top is dry. Don’t worry if the edges are moist, it will continue to cook even once it’s removed from the microwave.

6)    Immediately loosen the edges with a knife and turn the cake upside down onto a plate. Eat while still warm and steamy as the Isle of Mist. To make multiple cakes, just wash out the baking bowl and repeat.

The cake is delicious on its own, but if you wish to feast in true fairy style, top the warm cake with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Interviews, New Recipes, Techniques

Broiled Tomato Pasta & Pizza Sauce

A sun-ripened tomato is summer in a sphere. My garden dream of having so many tomatoes I would need to make huge batches of pasta sauce to freeze just so they wouldn’t go to waste have puttered out.

My three beautiful heirlooms pulled a few tricks,

but when all was said and done, didn’t put on as big of a show as I had hoped. I blame our uncharacteristically mild weather, and my new attempt at growing them in pots. Next year, my tomatoes will be free range.

Still dreaming of fresh pasta sauce, I bought 6 lbs of tomatoes for $3 at the farmer’s market. I’ve experimented a few times now with broiling as an homage to the Mexican method of charring. It has become my new favorite way of making a fresh Italian tomato sauce. It’s a super quick and simple method that brings out the sweetness, but doesn’t fully cook them so the sauce retains a nice freshness.

Broiled Tomato Pasta & Pizza Sauce

6 lbs tomatoes (obviously you can make a smaller batch, but I like to cook big and freeze the rest for a lazy day)
3-4 tablespoons good olive oil
3 cloves garlic
fistful of fresh basil leaves
a little salt and pepper

1)   Preheat broiler.

2)   Wash and dry tomatoes and remove stems. Single layer them in a rimmed cookie sheet or broiler pan without the grate. Drizzle with a little olive oil.

3)   Broil for 10-15 minutes, two rows down from the top rack, till the peels blister and start to blacken.

4)   While the ‘maters cook and cool, mince garlic and basil and put in blender with 3-4 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt & pepper. (Cue the whining-Why do I have to cut stuff up before it goes in the blender? Because dear Henry, then you can blend less and have a thicker sauce.)

5)   Once tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and toss into blender (minus peelings).

6)   Blend it up in two batches, then season to taste in a large bowl.

7)   Freeze in plastic storage bags or containers. (I measure them into 1, 2, or 3 cup servings.) 6 lbs makes about 5 cups of sauce, and will last several months in the freezer.

8)   To reheat, cut off the plastic bag. Defrost in a bowl in the microwave for about 4-5 minutes at regular heat, stirring every 1-2 minutes.

There is nothing like a little summer sun to help recharge the spirits, but in the midst of a wet, gray winter, hopefully this will carry you through. Mangia!

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Filed under Cuisines (Regional and International), Ingredients, Meal Planning, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques