Jasmine Ice-Cream in Florence

31 Jul

Only three days in Florence, with a gelateria on every corner .  I do what I can.  A scoop of chocolate as I stroll along the Piazza Santa Croce, Pistachio as I gaze over the Ponte Vecchio,  Stracciatella as I catch my breath in front of the Duomo, having just climbed the 400 or so steps winding up  Giotto’s bell tower – although in this case, I must admit, the gelato is (almost) trumped by the view.  I am quite pleased with myself, in an efficient, did-what-I-came-for kind of way.

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And then its my last night in the city.  I wander into a gelateria on the Piazza San Marco, a short walk from the Galleria dell’Accademia where I have just visited Michelangelo’s towering David, his eyes staring pensively into the distance.  “Gelateria Delice Glace,” a modest shop without a web site — could it live up to its name?

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While my niece and nephew blissfully eat their way through two scoops of vanilla (for Gabrielle), and chocolate (for Brian), I stand in front of the glass case separating me from rows of enticing flavors in a rainbow of equally enticing, bright summer colors.  What should I choose?  This might, after all, be my very last Florentine gelato for a very, very long time.

And then I notice it.  A tub of pale-as-cream gelato, garnished with a sprig of green leaves.  My eyes had skipped over it, dazzled by the competing citrus yellows, kiwi-greens and strawberry-pinks.  The tub is full; no one else has noticed it, either.  I lean down and peer at the faded, hand-scrawled label:  Gelsomino.  Sounds pretty. But is it good? And what is it, anyway?

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Jasmine.  Jasmine-flavored gelato.  The man behind the counter is enthusiastic.  I wonder if he’s sincere, or if he’s trying to unload a flavor flop.  Then I remember my grandmother’s small balcony in Athens, two jasmine plants growing in clay pots, reaching up to the bright blue sky, framing each side of our balcony door.  Every summer, the shrubs would blossom in a profusion of small, white, fragrant flowers.  Yiayia always said that her jasmine plants, while perennially vibrant, never flowered as gloriously as they did the summer my aunt got married, and the summer I was born.

So I order a scoop, a small, tentative scoop.  And then I am sorry.  I should have ordered two, or three.  The gelato tastes as light and fragrant as the jasmine flowers on Yiayia’s balcony. The man behind the counter smiles.  We are both very pleased.

Now, all too soon, I am a world away from Florence.  What can I do?  I live in Wisconsin, and no one has fresh jasmine flowers.  So I order some natural jasmine extract on the Internet, and take down my ice-cream maker.  Two hours later, I take my first, tentative taste.  I close my eyes and I feel myself standing once again in front of the pleased gelato man, in the gelateria on the Piazza San Marco, remembering my grandmother and her beloved jasmine plants flowering on our balcony in our long-gone house in Athens.

Jasmine Ice Cream

This ice-cream can be flavored with an infusion made from food-grade jasmine flowers, or with jasmine tea, or jasmine extract.  I made it using the extract.  The ice-cream tastes JUST like the flowers smell, so if you like jasmine tea, or jasmine rice, or jasmine rice-pudding, you will LOVE this.  My friend, who does not like any of these things, wrinkled her nose and said she felt like she was eating an incense stick.

The following recipe makes one quart.

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • Jasmine extract**

** I use 1 teaspoon jasmine extract, but you may find the flavor too strong. When the recipe calls for adding the extract, start with 1/2 teaspoon and taste. If the flavor is too subtle, keep adding more extract in 1/4 teaspoon increments.  Keep in mind that the flavor intensifies as the mixture cools.  You can also add a bit more extract just before pouring the mixture into the ice-cream maker if needed.

In a medium saucepan, add milk, sugar, 1 cup of heavy cream and pinch of salt.  Warm gently over medium-low heat.

Pour remaining 1 cup cream into large bowl and set a fine sieve on top.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks.  Very slowly, add the warmed milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly.  Pour the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan.

Place the saucepan over medium heat and continually stir until mixture thickens and coats the back of the spoon.  Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream.  Add the jasmine extract (starting with ½ teaspoon and adding more to your liking) and stir until cool.  The jasmine flavor will intensify when the custard cools.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in your refrigerator.  Freeze in your ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

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Garlic Love

3 Jul

Every week I go to the grocery store and absentmindedly pick up four or five bulbs of garlic.  I look briefly for achromatic ones that are free from mold, and plunk them into my basket.  I bring them home, cook them up, then return the following week to absentmindedly pick up some more.

But this morning, I decided to pay attention to garlic. After all, it is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, first used by the ancient Egyptians more than 5,000 years ago.

It is said that the Pharoahs fed garlic to their slaves to give them the supernatural strength that building pyramids required, that early Greek military leaders fed garlic to their troops before battle to give them courage, and that Greek travelers placed garlic at crossroads to appease the goddess Hecate and cause evil spirits to lose their way.   And of course, we all know how garlic has been used to repel Transylvanian vampires.

For vampire-repelling garlic mints, visit Bloom's Candy and Soda Pop Shop (candycarrollton.com)!

For vampire-repelling garlic mints, visit Bloom’s Candy and Soda Pop Shop (candycarrollton.com)!

But it wasn’t just vampires and evil spirits that abhorred garlic.  The 17th-century English declared it unfit for ladies because of its pungent odor, and 19th-century American reformers made its eradication an important tactic in their battle to uplift the immigrant masses and assimilate them into society.  Not until well into the 20th century did Americans begin to enjoy, without guilt or social embarrassment, this humble and powerful bulb.

Yet despite its long and prominent history, garlic today has become mundane.  It no longer seems to arouse passion in vampires, goddesses or social reformers.  Which is why, I guess, I never gave it much notice.  And that is a shame.  Because this morning I discovered that garlic CAN still ignite passion, especially among the small but increasing number of garlic enthusiasts growing hundreds of varieties in our country and throughout the world – “hot” varieties like Killarney Red or Spanish Rioja, “medium” ones like Persian Star or Nootka Rose, “mild” ones like Polish White or Siberia.

From Karen & Mike's web site, wegrowgarlic.com

From Karen & Mike’s web site, wegrowgarlic.com

Even in my own little neck of the woods, I can buy a thrilling assortment of organic garlic produced by Wisconsonites Mike and Karen, who began growing garlic as a hobby on their small farm north of Madison 12 years ago; or from Cathy and Greg who grow garlic on their family Copper Kettle Farm in Colgate; or from Dave-the-garlic-man-Peterson who taps maple sugar and grows garlic, among other things, at his organic Maplewood Gardens in Elderon; or from any of one of the 101 garlic producers listed on the Savor Wisconsin web site.

So I’ve decided that this week instead of going mindlessly to my local grocery store and plunking one of two standard, long-shelf-life varieties absentmindedly into my basket, I’m going to go on a local garlic tour – and I’m going to pay very close attention as I fill my basket with variety after variety of this surprisingly still humble, powerful, glorious bulb.

If you go on a local garlic tour and come home with a basket full of bulbs, try braising them in olive oil with herbs.  They will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 weeks, and are great spread on crusty bread, tossed into a beet  or roasted pepper salad, pureed into an olive oil dressing, or used in any way you can imagine!

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Oil-Braised Garlic With Herbs

  • 4 cups peeled garlic cloves, about 10 heads of garlic
  • 2-3 dried bay leaves
  • 8 – 10 sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary
  • 1 Tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • Kosher salt
  • A blend of half canola, half extra-virgin olive oil, enough to just cover the garlic, about 2 cups

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F.

Place the garlic cloves in a Dutch oven or ceramic baking dish.  Add bay leaves, herbs, peppercorns, and generous sprinkling of salt.  Pour in enough oil to just barely cover the garlic. Cover with a lid or foil and braise until cloves are very tender, about 1 hour.  Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.

Place the garlic and oil in a sterilized glass jar (see instructions below).  Press a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper gently down onto the surface of the oil.  Place another piece of plastic wrap over the jar’s rim and twist on the lid or secure with a rubber band.  Store in the refrigerator.  Each time you scoop out some of the garlic to use, be sure to use a clean fork or spoon, and replace a clean piece of plastic over the oil.

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To sterilize your jar:

Place clean, empty jar(s) in a large pot.  Completely cover the jar(s) with water.  Bring to boil over high heat.  Once the water reaches a vigorous boil, continue boiling for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and carefully remove jar(s) from water with tongs and fill.  If you are not quite ready to use your jars, you can leave them in the hot water for one hour – any longer, and you’ll need to sterilize them again.

P.S. — I discovered that I just missed the 2nd annual June Braise Garlic Fest in Milwaukee!!!  I’m putting it on my calendar NOW for next year!

Ladybugs

10 Jun

Four thousand ladybugs arrived all the way from Ohio to my home in central Wisconsin today.  They came Priority Mail.  A very concerned postman delivered them – the box was labeled “Live Ladybugs,” and it was a bit dented.  He was worried the ladybugs had been squashed; having never been responsible for delivering live ladybugs before, he wasn’t sure quite what to expect.  He also wondered why anyone would order 4,000 ladybugs from the Internet.  “To eat the thousands of aphids infesting my cherry tree,” I explained.

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I had waited expectantly all week, and they finally arrived.  They were shipped in a mesh bag, four thousand ladybugs cuddled together.  A small cold pack had been taped to the box next to the mesh bag, keeping the ladybugs’ body temperature low, so they would make their long journey in a calm, sleepy state.

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The sheet that came along with the shipment instructed me to keep the critters in the refrigerator, until it was time to release them.  At that time, I was to spray a sweet liquid nectar on the cherry tree leaves to attract the awakening ladybugs, who were sure to be very hungry.

We followed the instructions to the letter, carefully squirting the trees with the sweet nectar, gingerly opening up the mesh bag, and then coaxing the wobbly visitors toward their first aphid feast.  They stumbled, stretched their wings, and settled in.

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Ladybugs, of which there are more than 150 species in the United States (LadybugLady), love aphids, mites, and mealy bugs, among other tasty morsels that pester fruit and vegetable gardens.  They are considered harbingers of good luck the world over.  In Greece, they are called Paschalitsa because they are found abundantly around Easter time. In Turkish, they are called Uğur böceği, insects of fortune. In Catalan they are called Marieta, little Mary, after the Virgin.

I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and go check on my Paschalitsas.  I hope they will be having a hearty breakfast of aphids, followed by a hearty lunch and dinner, with a few Hobbit-ish elevensies thrown in.  And perhaps after all that feasting, late in August, I will be able to pick the fruit from my aphid-free sour cherry tree, and share with you my Yiayia’s recipe for Visino, one of Greece’s most favored sweets – a sour cherry preserve.

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If you want to learn more about buying ladybugs responsibly online, check out a post by Chicago urban gardener and blogger Ramon Gonzalez on  Treehugger.

Honey, Olives, Octopus

22 Apr

If you can’t travel to Greece this summer, go down to your local bookstore and order a copy of Christopher Bakken’s Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table.  When it arrives, set up your own little table under a shade tree in the back yard.  Fill a bowl with olives — preferably the black, wrinkly ones from Thasos, though any Greek variety will do!  Fill your glass with wine.  When you are ready, open your book, take  a deep breath, and drop into the backseat of the little car driven madly by Tasos of Thasos, as he careens around switchbacks snaking along his island’s southern point, taking him, the author, and you, to his olive groves for a day of harvest.

Thus begins Bakken’s culinary travelogue, which takes us to Thasos and Crete, Serifos and Naxos, Chios and Kythira, tasting intensely local breads, cheeses, olives, roasted goat, Imam bayildi, raki, barbounia, fasolada. Bakken leads the way as we stroll passed white-washed houses, and dive for octopus in cobalt seas, and accept spoon sweets from black-clad, wizened women.  We sing with Cretans and throw our legs up high, our dance fueled by raki and kefi until dawn.

But Bakken, unlike so many culinary travel writers whose books now crowd the shelves, doesn’t stop at such outward, simply nostalgic signs of Greece.  He has written an idyll, not a fairytale.  He does not block out Athens, or the European Union, or the crushing economy, as no Greek can for very long.  He lets the modern world intrude quietly but profoundly, as it does, in village life:  through the snail making its imperceptible way up the leg of a plastic garden chair; through the stainless steel counters installed in the kitchens of an old taverna; through the roar of an Italian-made, gas-powered tsougrana (mechanical olive-picker) that drowns out, as Bakken writes, all “placid conversation” and precludes “the traditional harvest songs I imagined we’d sing.”

But again, the modern world under Bakken’s pen is about more than these outward sights and sounds.  It’s Kyria Eleftheria, a sublime bread-maker from Crete, sharing a quiet meal with Bakken in her cottage, momentarily engulfed by a loneliness that advances and retreats like the tides, her children long gone, having been lured away by the promises of the city.  It’s about Maria of Serifos, uncharacteristically soured into suspicion by experience, accusing Bakken of trying to plunder her culinary secretes for his own profit.  It’s about the old woman who trudges up the hill each night to light her abandoned village’s only street lamp, so she doesn’t feel so alone. It’s about Eleni and Yannis, stewards of Kythira’s bees, staving off the colony collapse disorder threatening hives and humans world-wide.

Bakken understands this darker side.  He feels the deep sadness and inherited anxiety carried by a people who have endured centuries of catastrophic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, brutal wars and military occupations, and more years of hunger than of plenty.  He understands the Greek resignation in the oft-heard phrase, “alla ti  na kanoume” (“but what can we do?”)  He also understands the inextinguishable optimism that allows the three brothers-in-spirit, Tasos and Bakken and Georgos, whose cancer has recently returned, to dream up plans of conquering Mount Olympus next autumn, and to seal their promises with a toast, entangled in grief and joy, heard at the end of every glorious Greek summer, to “tou xronou,” to “next year.”

Bakken is a poet, who was raised in Wisconsin and now teaches at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He first visited Greece more than 20 years ago, and has been returning whenever possible ever since.  When he writes of Chios and Naxos and Crete, of Tasos and Georgos and Eleftheria, I respond with deep recognition.  I know that the portrait he offers is not just accurate, which is easy, but true.  And I am grateful that he has written this book.  At a time when the country is wracked again by pain and anxiety over an uncertain future, we really need to be reminded of everything that is beautiful about Greece and its Greeks, from its hard, scrubby mountains, fertile valleys and breathtaking seas to its spirit of endurance, generosity and hope.

When I finally close the cover on Bakken’s book, I do so reluctantly, saddened to leave the places I’ve visited and the friends I’ve made.  Such is Bakken’s power, and his gift.  So go down to your local bookstore and when your book arrives, set out a little table under a shade tree in your yard.  Fill a bowl with olives and a glass with wine.  Open the book’s covers, take a deep breath, and drop down into the car driven madly by Tasos of Thasos, joining him as he careens toward his olive groves and an increasingly uncertain, but still hopeful, future.

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Spring?

20 Mar

It’s the first day of spring. The world is white.  Snow has been falling steadily, the road underfoot is crusty with ice,  and the thermometer reads 9 degrees F.

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I am getting restless.  I think of gutting my 1970s kitchen, replacing its drawers that won’t open and its doors that won’t close.  I think of purging old memories asleep in boxes of stuffed animals, once-favorite coffee mugs and too-small concert T-shirts from my basement.  I think of writing a book, flying to Tahiti, joining the gym.

But it’s much too soon.  Spring won’t properly arrive for weeks.  I must ward off the fever.

And yet I’m thwarted.  The days are longer and just a wee bit brighter, and yesterday I spotted in a corner of my garden, the one facing the morning sun, a bright green shoot, a daffodil brazenly emerging from the earth.  I was in a hurry and didn’t stop to linger. When I returned this morning, it was buried in snow.  I trudged to the corner where I swore I had seen it and dug and dug until my knees were soaked and my fingers numb.  It had been there – it’s still there – I’m sure.

In this weather, my body craves winter food:  stews served with steam still rising, dense bread, deep red wine. But today I think I, too, will be brazen.  I will set the table with flowers from the supermarket.  I will serve a spring salad, with a light crusty bread, and even a glass of “white” wine, which, if I look closely enough, is not white at all, but tinged with the bright yellows and greens of spring.

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One of my favorite cookbooks is “The Food You Crave” by Ellie Krieger. Whenever I need “spring,” I turn to her Chickpea and Spinach Salad with Cumin Dressing, which serves four.  It’s great on the side or as a main dish with warm bread.  Adapted from “The Food You Crave”:

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  • One 15.5 ounce can low-sodium chickpeas, rinsed
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 finely diced shallot (or 1 small red onion)
  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • ¾ teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons plain yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon orange juice
  • ¼ Teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • ¼ Teaspoon honey
  • Bunch baby spinach leaves, rinsed and dried (I like to pluck off any long stems)
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh mint

In a medium bowl, combine the chickpeas, parsley, shallot (or onion).

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, zest, cumin, salt and pepper.  Pour the dressing over the chickpea mixture and toss.

In a third bowl, whisk together the yogurt, orange juice, zest, and honey.

Just before serving, place the spinach leaves in a bowl and toss with the chickpeas.

Divide salad onto four plates, top with yogurt sauce, and garnish with mint.

90 Years of Chicago Greeks and Candy

4 Feb

This past weekend, I travelled four hours south on a wintry day along Interstate 90 to the National Hellenic Museum located on the corner of Halsted and Van Buren in Chicago’s famous Greek Town.

I had come to see the museum’s new exhibit “American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration.”  To my delight, I discovered photograph after photograph depicting Greeks working in textile mills, on the railroads, in the copper mines – and Greeks working their own produce stands, cafes, ice-cream parlors, confectioners shops, hot dog stands, import grocery stores, and of course, the suburban diner on which they left an indelible mark.

From "American Moments" exhibit, National Hellenic Museum, Courtesy Library of Congress

Greek Cafe.  Library of Congress. From “American Moments” exhibit, National Hellenic Museum.

Growing up in New Jersey, I knew about the hot dog stands, grocery stores, and diners – but I was unaware of the monopoly that Greeks held on candy stores and ice-cream parlors in early 20th century Chicago. According to a 1915 editorial published in the Salonika Greek Press: “On every great business corner in Chicago you will find the brightly lighted, clean, neat and attractive Greek confectionary store . . .almost two thirds of the confectionary business of Chicago is in the hands of the Greeks.”

One of these businesses is still serving ice-cream and hand-dipped candies today.  Margie’s Candies has been serving customers since 1921, when Peter George Poulos decided to open an ice-cream shop on the city’s north side.  The shop was renamed in 1933 when Poulos’s son George Peter married his sweetheart, Margie.  Their son, George, according to Margie’s web site,  is now learning the family business.

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Over the past 90 years, the shop has been visited by Al Capone, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, as well as countless other Chicagoans and tourists .  So if you, like me, want to learn more about how Chicago Greeks contributed to the city’s food culture, stop by the National Hellenic Museum on the corner of Halsted and Van Buren, and then drive four miles to 1960 North Western Ave., for a memorable and very tasty history lesson.

For more on Chicago Greeks, order a copy of “Greektown Chicago: Its History and Its Recipes” by Alexa Ganakos.  And if you know of a Greek immigrant or Greek American with an important story to tell, you may want to participate in the National Hellenic Museum’s Oral History Project.  Their handbook will give you instructions on how to interview and record your friends’ and relatives’ stories for the museum’s archives.

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Newtown

19 Dec

I was going to write about high-end olive oil today, but I just couldn’t do it.  Students in Newtown, Connecticut, returned to school yesterday, and I thought of them as I pushed open the door to my school building — a door that has been marked by a sign reading “NO firearms allowed” ever since Wisconsin passed the “Personal Protection Act” last year, allowing people to carry concealed weapons, including on campus grounds (although the university can ban them in university buildings).

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I also thought of the law allowing firearms to be sold at gun shows without background checks, the law prohibiting the ATF from releasing fire-arm data to the public, the law prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control from advocating for gun control, the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban; of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora; of the thousands of fatal shootings that occur each year but never make it past local headlines or a few lines on the local obituary page.

And I thought that instead of writing about high-end olive oil today,  I would write to my senators and representatives instead.  For the Newtown students and everyone else who was, or will be, shot in our towns and cities.

Victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newton

Photo by HANDOUT/Reuters

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