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The ROYAL Basil

The name itself - BASIL - denotes either king or queen in the greek language, depending on its reference.  In its neuter form and use, perhaps we would call it ROYAL.  It certainly is royalty in the mediterranean.  Growing in almost every taverna garden or cafe in Greece, SWEET BASIL (of which we will speak in this article) is a part of the cuisine that is as synonymous with Greek cooking as is lamb or spanikopita.  

The plant itself hails from the mint family and certainly can be identified as such in its aromatic qualities.  Basil is often used - along with rose petals - in Greek Orthodox services when a procession is celebrating an event of elevated stature.  As it is thrown out in front of the procession, each and every foot falls on it as the fanfare wends its way to its destination.  Breaking open the succulent leaves, the space is transformed.  The aroma is simply intoxicating as it rises to the nose.  It is considered a holy smell in these services - as much as is rose oil or incense.

Basil contains medicinal elements in its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities.  Studies from Purdue and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society attest to these benefits.  Others have identified that it increases antioxidant activity in the body.

In our diet, it can increase the flavor profile of so many foods.  First and foremost, it is the mainstay of a superior pesto or olive oil infusion.  Combined with extra virgin olive oil, fresh cracked black pepper, and fresh minced garlic it will hold its flavor for quite some time.  Blending these and storing them in the refrigerator will capture the full fresh nature of the basil leaf.  It does not take long to come to room temperature and then become a drizzle for bread, eggplant, salad, or vegetables; or, the base of a full-bodied dressing.

It can elevate a simple sandwich to royalty.  A large sweet basil leaf can transform any panini, grilled sandwich, wrap, or open-faced treat with something to delight both the tongue and nose at once.  I remember the first time we added it to a panini with a sharp cheddar, crumbled feta, and sliced tomato.  The olive oil we brushed on the bread, and the natural oils of the cheeses combined with the basil and the meat of the tomatoes and became a new source of joy in our culinary world.

Chopped it becomes a fine addition to a salad.  Layered between grilled eggplant, grilled tomatoes, thinly sliced fresh mozzarella, large grated fresh parmesan, sauteed minced garlic, and drizzled olive oil it becomes the flavor that connects the dots in a fresh eggplant parmesan.  Sprigs of the plant adorn any and all platters wonderfully; from red meats to fishes, from veggies to breads.   Plating it with the above allows people the opportunity to nosh on it with the meal, transforming each bite into a royal procession of culinary splendor.

I love arriving home to the garden in the waning sun of late afternoon.  Watering the basil with a fine mist tends to release its joyful smell from both leaf and root.  It invigorates the olfactory system to the point of allowing me to let go the cares and woes of a day of hard work - a true balm and medicine for the heart.

It is used in the cuisine of many cultures; Middle-eastern, Indian, African to name a few.  And, has earned itself a place at the table in the evolving American palate and culinary landscape.  Finding it in chef’s gardens at chef-owned restaurants is a given.  It has woven itself into the coterie of even the local common American market, no longer just the dandy of the farmers market and local produce coop.  It is here to stay and is a flavorful force to be integrated into our palate to make it what it can be - ROYALTY.  


It is Autumn again, and time for new soups to be crafted.

This year I am starting with a base of cooked down kale and broccoli, chopped up finely and straining out the water once the veggies are mushy.  It's good to drink or hold for stock later.

Then, add a gob of diced butternut squash, quartered and diced zucchini squash and yellow squash, carrots, celery, and onions diced.  Cook them until al dente and add diced chicken breast and 1/4 x 1 inch strips of apple smoked bacon extra thick bacon.  The stock should cover the compote completely.  Of course sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste as well as three heaping tablespoons of minced garlic in oil.

Simmer all of this in a stock pot or cast iron soup pot until the chicken is cooked through.  Add cilantro and then a mix of Bisquick and low fat milk (1 - 3 respectively). Plate it up and be sure to have some fresh dill to top it off with.

And, of course, BISCUITS are implied!!!

"Borscht, More Borscht" - Goethe

Ok, I'll come clean.  Goethe did not say, "Borscht, More Borscht" on his deathbed.  What he said was, "Light, more light." But, if I used that title, you would have no idea this was a post about BORSCHT.  Duh.

I must be on a mid-winter Balkans food-kick as yesterday I made stuffed cabbage (halupki) and today I am making Borscht.  I am excited to be able to use the beets I canned from the Amish folks this summer.  Elmer Stoltzfus and his family have great vegetables and they come to town Saturdays and Wednesdays (which, now that I am working close to home I can get to both days! Yeah!).  Their beets are no different.  I canned them in a water and garlic broth, not pickling.

I am using Mollie Katzen's sensational recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook (which has just had its 40th anniversary in print).  We won't talk about that, since I clearly remember buying it after it had just come out.  Mollie is a cook extraordinaire (and is in my top CHEFS/foodies category with Peter Reinhardt, Chef Jacob Burton, and Vincent Waugh).  She is also a WOW of an artist.  Her cookbooks have been adorned with her art since day one and has made them that much more a part of foodie culture - from the 60's forward.  She is top-shelf in both food and art categories and is a SUPER GIVING person who has helped shape a whole healthy food zeitgeist in our modern era.  Thanks, Mollie!!!

At any rate - you will have to get the recipe from her cookbook, as I won't divulge a fellow-foodie's secret recipe.  But, I will share that there are carrots, cabbage, beets, potatoes, onions, dill, tomatoes, caraway and more in the recipe.  And, I will tell you it is simply delish!!!!!  So, be sure to get the book today and grab the ingredients and get cooking.  http://www.amazon.com/Moosewood-Cookbook-Katzens-Classic-Cooking/dp/1580081304 (available in Kindle digital edition if you click the link to the 40th Anniversary edition in the upper left quadrant).

Also, be sure to take the optional tip ingredient (RAISINS) and add them!!!!

A Monte Cristo of a Different Mother

I love trying to take the middle class challenge every week and see if I can use up the items that are left in the refrigerator before I go shopping again.  Lately we have been able to stretch it two weeks between shopping ventures which is nicer, but it amps up the challenge.

Today I am going with an asiago cheese monte cristo with whole grain bread, pepper encrusted smoked turkey, a second helping of cheese - this time goat cheese - some spring mix greens, and caramelized red onions.  I dipped the sandwich in egg whites and then grilled in a lite coating of olive oil.  Mmm good.

I love having a couple of days to just play before the new job starts.  Of course it doesn't hurt to have been sick and stuck at home at the same time.

Zummo's Cafe

Moving can always be a stressful moment in life for a college student.  A new town, a new school, a new life...there is a lot to process and become acclimated toward.  It helps if you can find a hangout that is a bridge.  Zachary transferred to Marywood University and he scoped out the town for a good coffee shop for him to connect with.  He found Zummo's, and WOW, what a find it was.

The place is jammed with unbelievable food.  Fresh muffins, quiches, salads and sandwiches.  The folks at our table had grilled turkey and cheese with bacon, signature salads with fruit and nuts, and THE BEST CHICKEN SALAD SANDWICHES around on some great whole grain pita.  Of course the baked and no baked snacks / sweets abounded as well.  And then, the espresso.  Enough said.

The place is clean and feels warm and inviting.  The counter and shop decor are a blend of old world cafe, progressive bakery, and shop for coffee lovers and aficianados - with all of the salable accoutrement you could desire for your home.  It is peppered with old photos of the site back in the day when it was a shoe repair shop owned by two brothers.

The micro-roasted coffees are wonderful.  They use a fine clover brewing process. And, you can even grab beans or ground roasts to take with you as well as fan-ware and mugs.  They believe in making things fresh and not skimping on quality.  Portions are monstrous and the freshness is noticeably impeccable.

I loved the place, the food, the feel.  I wish I lived in town so I could try out the soups, and fare everyday.  It'll just have to be good enough to stalk the place when visiting Zachary at Marywood University.  AWESOME PLACE FOLKS.  VISIT IT!  Its at 916 Marion Street, Scranton, PA.

Having it soooo close, it is really easy to get up on a day off and meet Zachary at Zummo's for breakfast and a fine brew.

GOOD Coffee is a communal thing.  

IT IS at Zummo's!

The Subtle Tastes in Chai and Breakfast Sandwiches

It is very easy to just get into the habit of eating to store food for energy.  It is a common trend in a Millennial lifestyle.  Getting to the next thing becomes ultra-critical and paying attention to each step along the way is less vital.  However, for those of us who are trying to blend mindfulness with Millennialism, it is a real act of formation and direction to relish the many sound-bytes of our lives and recon them for full flavor and taste.

As I was cooking some breakfast for my sons this morning - a sacramental rite for me - I was paying attention to the levels of taste in the foods.  There would be some simple alterations to taste that I could make by one or two deviations from practice.

First, the Sandwich:

As I was frying the thick-cut, hickory smoked bacon, I decided to slice the slab into 1/4 strips.  The slab was already pre-sliced so the strips would be one piece thick and wide by 1/4 inch long.  It would spread the bacon out throughout the sandwich and not just leave its flavor to the portions that contained a normal size slice.  Surface area is critical in taste.  Adding more changes the flavor.  Then I decided to use the bacon drippings as the oil for the pan - draining out some so as not to overdue it.

Then I added the eggs.  Now, I could make it into an omelet or I could scramble it.  I chose to scramble.  This would allow a fluffier texture and more "fresh egg" taste.  Omelet-izing the eggs would allow for a harsher and carmel crispy surface.  I did not want that today.

Then I chose to toast the sandwich rounds.  We use sandwich rounds that are whole grain and have flaxseed, so toasting them would carmelize the flavor to a nutty deliciousness.

They were great.

Next, the Chai:

Having fond memories of early morning ashram Chai (and sometimes Siddha Coffee) which was totally kick-ass in its warming and startling eye-opening-ability (so you could wake up and go chant, meditate and do your SEVA) I am partial to certain tastes.  I love the warming of ginger, I love a dark, dark tea (Red Label Indian is THE JOLTIEST I know) and I love cardamom.  So, the Chai would have all three for sure.  Hints of cinnamon and nutmeg are also added, but lightly.  The ginger needs to be fresh and grated - again a surface area and flavor related thing.

I simmered it for 15 minutes and strained it with a coffee press.  Chai is one of those things that you can really detected subtlety in.  It is best to play around with the tastes as you are making it and see what each thing adds to the overall taste.

Small and simple course corrections and direction changes make all the difference in the world - not just in French culinary design, but even in a simple everyday breakfast.  Feel the subtlety and relish the obscure.

Some Tomato Sauce

The kids are having some friends over - which amounts to a handful of teen-guys or young men.  That is the human anthropological sense of the guests.  But, in scope of their gustatory capability it is the equivalent of a plague of locust.  Fly through and consume.  They are liable to come and go without notice and you are left looking for that one thing you had left in the fridge for just that one moment when you could eat it; and, it would be deeply meaningful and comforting at once.  But then, you realize it was ravished as simple spoils of a teen invasion.

Today I have a good head start on the gang coming over so I am sauteing some peppers, onions, and garlic in olive oil.  Adding in some pre-cooked sausage and bacon.  And, when this is all done and simmering, cutting up some plum tomatoes and throwing them in to simmer for 45 minutes.

When I get to the end I am putting in some baby spinach leave - about 40 - 50 and letting them weep themselves into the sauce.  After they have settled into the sauce, I cut of the heat, dump in 25 fresh picked basil leaves and 1/2 cup of olive oil.

If you use really good extra virgin olive oil, always add it at the end - after the heat is cut and the food is settling into infusing itself into everything contained in the pan.  This aging and cooling of food is where tons of flavors are unleashed.  Too many folks serve foods TOO HOT and the flavors have really been killed or lost to the heat.

I wanna recommend friend Chef Jacob Burton's podcast of the FIVE MOTHER SAUCES.  It is the backdrop of so much in the culinary arts.  His new site Stella Culinary School is AWESOME and the FIVE MOTHER SAUCES starts with session 9.  Check'em out.