Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Something from Nothing: Stuffed Pumpkin Blossoms

Tempura goat cheese and ricotta stuffed pumpkin blossoms
by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
  If you ever talk to someone who lived through the Great Depression, you may hear the phrase, spoken with respect,  "And my mama/daddy/grandma knew how to make something from nothing." The notion of creating treasure from someone else's trash can be found everywhere from art - Georgia's own folk artist Howard Finster, for instance, to restaurant and home kitchens. The something-from-nothing philosophy got my grandparents through the Depression, and it’s a principle in use today as cooks practice frugality in the kitchen. Farm to table, nose to tail, and now, blossom to fruit.

I thought about "something from nothing" a while back when my friend Jason Parrish invited me to see his pumpkin farm in south Douglas County. Up until a couple years ago, Parrish was in the financial services industry. His wife is a lawyer and they have two young sons. Like many families in these challenging economic times, Parrish is making something from next to nothing – a bag of seeds, some mulch, some water, (actually a lot of water in this very dry August), using his own labor and initiative to build a business.

Jason asked if I’d ever used pumpkin blossoms in cooking. He planted pumpkin seeds beginning in June, planning on a rolling harvest in autumn, and he had excess blossoms. I needed a botany lesson reboot:  pumpkins produce two kinds of blossoms, male and female. Only the female develops fruit, so after the male blossoms have done their duty of pollinating the females (with a little help from bees and other bugs), they aren't needed. In other words, pumpkins are like Elizabeth Taylor in her prime, taking the best of what's offered, mating-wise, and leaving the rest just hanging on the vine.

The female pumpkin blossom. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 The silver lining, or to stretch the Liz Taylor theme out, a diamond-encrusted lining, is that cooks can pick the pumpkin blossoms and stuff them with rich fillings, dip them in batter and fry them up for a crispy, creamy taste of summer.

A male pumpkin flower. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

After spending a very hot August morning in the pumpkin patch, I turned to Executive Chef Christina Curry of Epicurean Endeavors for advice on using the blossoms, based on her experience with zucchini flowers. She suggested a tempura batter and plans B and C for future blossom projects: dicing the fowers and using them in a fritter, or a quick high temp roast with olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper. "You are only limited by your imagination, so try some different combinations and decide which you like best," she wrote in her reply to my inquiring email.

On her advice, I created a lemony goat cheese filling, cutting the rich chevre with ricotta and flavoring the mixture with basil and chives from my herb garden. I created a tempura batter using rice flour, just the right light texture for the delicate blossoms.

Pumpkin blossoms by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

If you’re lucky enough to be able to purchase pumpkin or squash blossoms, plan to cook with them right away. If you’re picking the blossoms, make sure that they have not been treated with any kind of pesticide, and look for the blooms without the female bump behind the blossom. When you open up the male blooms, it’s quite clearly a male, just so you know. Keep them in a closed brown paper bag or zipper lock bag with a slightly damp paper towel. It’s best to pick pumpkin or squash blossoms early in the day, before they close up for their afternoon naps.To clean the blossoms, rinse them off very lightly with water, and check for signs of critters or mildew inside. Pinch and pull out the stamen.

Pumpkin blossoms by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

To fill the blossoms, I like to use a baby feeding spoon – another reason never to clean out the silverware drawer – those little guys are so handy. Scoop the filling into the flowers. When all the blossoms are stuffed, heat the oil in a pan, and have a paper towel-lined plate handy. Have the mayo ready and your diners on call. Mix the batter, dip the blossoms and fry. Drain on paper towels and serve.

Pumpkin blossoms waiting to be washed. By Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Tempura Battered, Goat Cheese -Stuffed Pumpkin Blossoms

 ½ cup ricotta (lowfat is fine)

½ cup goat cheese

1 teaspoon lemon zest (about a ½ lemon’s worth)

Pinch salt

A couple turns of freshly cracked black pepper

¼ cup loosely packed basil leaves, thinly sliced (chiffonade)
½ teaspoon chopped chives

Tempura Battered Pumpkin Blossoms

1/3 cup rice flour (look in the Latin foods section of the market)

1/3 cup all purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 egg yolk

1 cup seltzer

One dozen fresh, organic pumpkin blossoms

Vegetable or canola oil for frying

Lemony mayo

½ cup mayonnaise mixed with juice of ½ lemon

1. Make the mayo first. Either Homemade, or jazz up good-quality storebought with a squeeze of lemon juice. Keep in refrigerator while cooking the pumpkin flowers.

2. Mix up the filling: In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, goat cheese, lemon zest, basil and chives. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

3. Using a baby feeding spoon and a fair amount of patience, place about a tablespoon of filling in each blossom. If the bloom is tightened, use a paring knife to cut a slit along the side. Fold the petals over the filling.

4. Set up a frying station. Fill a Dutch oven with 2 inches of canola oil and set over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, stir together rice flour, all-purpose flour, salt and egg yolk. Whisk in seltzer. Adjust the batter consistency to your liking by adding either a bit more flour or a bit more seltzer – I like the batter on the thin side.

5. Oil is ready when a test dribble of batter bubbles to the surface. Using the stem as a hand-hold, dip each stuffed blossom in the batter then place gently into the bubbling oil. These cook very quickly – about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and serve with lemony mayo on the side.

Fried, stuffed pumpkin blossoms. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Many thanks to Jason for sharing the pumpkin flowers and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and Christina Curry for culinary guidance.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jeff's bruschetta

Jeff's bruschetta by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My neighbor Jeff is a foodie. A man who truly enjoys getting in the kitchen and creating. One of the best things about being neighbors with and his family is that they will invite us over for dinner and feed us well. A second perk is that he shares recipes. He couldn't wait to tell me this one and when he did, I couldn't wait to make it. A simple little app using the best summer tomatoes you can find.

This is an informal recipe, so you'll just have to follow your instincts in the kitchen:

1. Assemble a baguette, a lemon, ricotta (whole milk's the way to go here, but if you all you have is low-fat, that'll work), a ripe tomato or two or three, some fresh basil and some fresh oregano, salt and pepper.

2. Take a baguette, slice it into thin rounds. If you're grilling, place slices on the grill long enough to get lovely grill marks. If you're indoors, toast the slices for a few minutes, just to crisp them up.

3. Stir together some ricotta, say about a 1/2 cup and add the zest of 1/2 the lemon. Stir in some chopped fresh oregano. Season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

4. Chop the tomato(es) and stir in some chopped basil, salt and pepper. I'm the kind of person who would add minced garlic at this point.

5. Top the grilled bread slices with a shmear of ricotta mixture and a spoonful of the tomato mixture. Garnish with a pinch of whole basil leaves.

And that's it! Make some extras and invite your neighbors over!

Monday, August 22, 2011

7 Things to Bring to a Borders Liquidation Sale (and 5 Things to Leave at Home)

Borders Books by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Some history on Borders and me: I’ve worked as a part-time bookseller at Borders for close to three years. These weren't the glory years, to be sure, but as a passionate reader, being able to share my knowledge of books with customers has been a source of joy to me. There are a lot of reasons why Borders is closing, and all I have to say on the subject is that the Kindle alone didn't kill Borders; there were lots of railcars in that trainwreck. All the employees care about now is closing the store with dignity, knowing they did their best to keep the bookstore alive. 

After a month of Christmas-like crowds without the requisite goodwill, I decided to put together a primer on How to Shop the Borders Liquidation without Losing Your Mind.

A few items from the cafe sale: cups, shot glass, tamper. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Seven things to bring to the Borders liquidation sale:

1. Understanding the term “all sales are final.” This means that once you walk away from the cash register, there are no returns. If you get home and realize that you already have  the Nora Roberts/Lee Child/John Grisham title, just wrap it up and give it as a Christmas gift.

2. BYOB. Bring your own bags or boxes, especially if you’re buying big. We’re down to the medium-size bags which are great for small items, not so good for outsize bargain books and toys.

3. Bring proper form of payment. Cash, credit and debit cards are a yes. Checks are a no. The liquidation company will honor gift cards throughout the sale. Pro tip: while waiting in line to pay, locate gift cards and make sure they are for Borders and not another retailer. If paying with a credit or debit card, have i.d. in hand – cashiers are required to check i.d. on unsigned cards.

4. A calculator or the ability to compute percentages in your head. If you’re a parent, this is an optimal teaching moment. For newbies, now that we’re in the 40 to 60 percent range, ballpark at half price and count on slight displeasure or pleasant surprise. Bonus points for knowing local sales tax and guesstimating final tally with tax. Pro tip: The discount is applied to the list price. For non-bargain merchandise, that’s the price on the yellow sticker. For bargain merchandise, it’s the price listed on the red or blue label.

5. Lowered expectations for the merchandise. If you’re looking for “The Help” or the Jaycee Dugard story, you'll just have to look elsewhere. As far as locating books, keep in mind that the store is straightened every night, but within a few hours of opening, it is trashed again by bookstore gremlins. After four weeks of this, the books are no longer in alphabetical order, although most start out the day in proper section. This is old-school book retailing, without title look-up and the booksellers’ internal GPS. Pro tip: Touch the books as you look through them; there will be fewer opportunities in the future to do this before buying.

6. Respect for the employees. Remember that 11,000 Borders employees will lose their jobs when the sale is over. We have bills to pay just like everyone else and we do not relish the idea of looking for new jobs in this economy. The thing to know about booksellers is that, by and large, they are overeducated and underpaid. They chose to work in a business that they loved – sharing books, music and movies with others.

7. An empty bladder. Restrooms are closed, at least in our store. A curious quirk of Borders retail history is restroom horror stories. All I really need to say about this is: go before you leave the house.

Cafe cups and ornaments by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

And five things to leave at home:

1. Any list of books that you expect to hand to an employee with the expectation that the books can be located. As mentioned in #4, it’s old school book shopping now. Employees on the floor, including those at the registers, do not have access to title look-up. We can direct you to the section where the book would be shelved in the good ol’days. After that, you’re on your own.

2. Rewards cards. It’s no use digging for them. The basic Borders rewards program ended July 31 when the last Borders Bucks expired. The Borders Rewards Plus program officially ended a few weeks ago, but a version has been brought back for a few days this week. (Keep in mind that to use this offer, you must have either the printed-out coupon or the Borders Rewards Plus account number. And to the rude man who threw his Borders rewards card at me yesterday; I'm embarrassed for you and your family and sincerely hope that you have the opportunity to work a retail liquidation someday.

3. Classroom discount cards. This program ended when Borders was sold to its present owner. If you choose to be all grumbly about it, look at it this way: you are purchasing new books at half-price or better and pumping money into your local economy, which in turn helps local schools. You could purchase the same books new through Amazon at a higher price, or second-hand through online booksellers at a comparable price, but neither purchase would help your local economy.

Tamper and shot glass by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

4. The kidoodles. I enjoy children, but as a parent, I would really encourage parents to shop without them. Or tag team so that one parent can shop while another watches the children. I write this as much for the children’s sake as the parents. I’ve seen stressed-out parents frustrated with their children who do not know how to look for books after they can not locate their favorite authors. If you do shop with your children, at we still have harmonicas, squeaky ducks and talking books.
5. Questions about the closing of the store and when the next mark-downs will come. First of all, I hear "store closing" as "no more paycheck," so it's hard to get excited about that 90 percent day. And it’s not as one customer suggested to me, a game that the cashiers are playing with the customers; that it’s a secret that we will only share with our closest friends. We truly don’t know anything beyond what is reported in the media; that the company expects to be completely liquidated by the end of September. To be honest, I get a little nervous just taking my lunch break. (That’s a joke, friends, and after being asked that question 376 times yesterday, I’m rather proud that I can still make a joke.)

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

What about you? Is Borders in your community? Are you shopping the sales?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Splendid Ice Cream with Cherries (!)

Goat cheese ice cream with roasted cherries by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

An artist’s eye and confectioner’s soul have led Jeni Britton Bauer to create rich, flavorful ice creams that tempt the palate. Bauer is the founder of “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams” with 10 stores in her native Ohio and now expanding into Tennessee. Her revolutionary flavors and ice cream bases are tailored to at-home ice cream artists in her new book, “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home” (Artisan, 2011).

Jeni Britton Bauer by Stacy Newgent
In Jeni’s Splendid stores, Bauer and her employees use fresh local produce in their unusual flavor combinations, all made by hand in small batches. Salty Caramel is her signature flavor, and just perusing the book turns up mouth-watering temptations like Roasted Cherry Goat Cheese, Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry, Backyard Mint, Sweet Basil and Honeyed Pine Nut, Watermelon Lemonade Sorbet, and the Buckeye State Ice Cream: Honeyed Peanut Ice Cream with Dark Chocolate Freckles.

The flavors are intriguing, but technique is what grabbed me – Jeni’s ice creams do not use eggs, instead substituting a cornstarch slurry to thicken the ice cream base and finishing with a smidge of cream cheese. Unlike my go-to custard-style ice cream, Jeni’s recipes yield a scoop-able frozen cream that is not the least bit grainy, but smooth and rich.

In the charming intro to the book, Jeni tells the story of her business and the pursuit of the ultimate ice cream. It’s a tale of an art student seeking fulfillment and small business success –there are lessons beyond the kitchen that can be found in here.

The kitchen is where the book really shines – the 100 recipes are arranged according to season, highlighting what’s fresh and in the markets during each month. Extras include tutorials for sundaes, a luscious-looking Baked Alaska Pie (Jeni’s a fan of Italian Meringue, too!), and recipes for marshmallows, cake and assorted sweet mix-ins and accessories (Honey Butterscotch Sauce is kind of calling my name right now).

It’s no secret that I love cookbooks – I read them compulsively to relax and gather ideas for feeding my family. It’s rare for me, though, to bookmark recipes that I intend to come back to. I couldn’t find sticky notes, so I tore up a scribble pad and marked all the flavors I want need to make. Tres Leches Ice Cream (“airy morsels of meringue and cubes of buttery cake in a light coconut-milk and cow’s milk ice cream”). Wild Berry Lavender Ice Cream (“intense lavender with hints of exotic spices and brambly berry flavors”). Do yourself a flavor and pick up a pack of sticky notes when you buy a copy of “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.” If you don't have an ice cream maker, start shopping now. I've used a Krups LaGlaciere countertop model for at least 10 years and I love it. If you do have an ice cream maker, consider getting a second one - you're going to want to try every recipe in the book.

Chopped dark cherries ready for roasting by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Roasted Cherry Goat Cheese Ice Cream

Cherries are my husband's favorite fruit, so it was natural to gravitate to this recipe. The roasted cherries are dead easy, and I will use the oven-roasting technique again: sugar + cornstarch + fruit + oven heat = syrupy roasted fruit bliss. The verdict on taste: "frozen fudge" - and that's a good thing - a slight tang from the goat cheese gives a kiss of spring to the sweet fruit and creamy dairy texture.

Makes 1 quart ice cream

2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
½ cup (about 4 ounces) fresh goat cheese
1 ½ ounce (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
Roasted Cherries (see below)

1. Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry. Whisk the goat cheese, cream cheese, and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

2. Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar, and corn surup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

3. Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese mixture until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

4. Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy. Pack the ice cream into a storage container, alternating it with layers of the cherries and ending with a spoonful of cherries; do not mix. Press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Goat cheese ice cream with roasted cherries by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Roasted Cherries
Makes about 1 ¼ cups

2 cups pitted fresh or frozen (not thawed) red or black cherries
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch

1. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Combine the cherries, sugar and cornstarch in a 9-inch square baking dish, tossing to mix. Roast for 30 to 45 minutes, until the juices are thickened and bubbly, stirring every 15 minutes. Let cool completely, then chill in the refrigerator.

From JENI’S SPLENDID ICE CREAMS AT HOME by Jeni Britton Bauer, Artisan Books, Copyright © 2011, Author photograph by Stacy Newgent.

"Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home" by Jeni Britton Bauer, hardcover, 217 pages. $23.95 list price. The publisher sent me a review copy. There was no compensation for this review and my opinions are my own. They're lovely opinions, aren't they?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A peanut butter pie for Mikey

Peanut butter pie with Reese's Pieces for Mikey by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

This may not be one of the prettiest pies I’ve ever made, but it may be one of the most important. This Peanut Butter Pie is for Mikey and all those little “I’ll do it tomorrow’s” I say to my family as I try to get done just what I need to get done today.

I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime after “I do” and “It’s a girl!” and “Honey, it’s another girl!” I became a big believer in tomorrow. Today was for whittling down the to-do list. Get up, get breakfast, get out the door, pick up, drive home, finish homework. Cook. Eat. Clean. Launder. Way too much laundry. Tomorrow was for baking cakes, making milkshakes, splashing in the rain and making mud pies.

But, guess what? We don’t always have tomorrow. I was reminded of this recently by a woman whom I’ve never met, Jennifer Perillo, who is a recipe developer and blogger at In Jennie’s Kitchen. She lost her husband suddenly last week when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He left behind Jennie and their two young daughters. Last Monday, I checked in on Twitter and began reading the emotional words and shreds of news about the sudden end to this beloved father and husband’s life.

Blogging’s a funny thing. You can keep your audience at a distance, posting words and pictures, just pretending that every day is the same in a magical land that’s untouched by unemployment, illness, loss. Or you can open up the doors and windows and let the world see what life is all about. That’s what Jennifer chose to do, posting “ One Last Dance” the day after her husband passed away. The home video of her husband dancing with her little girl just about breaks my heart to watch. It’s someone’s husband. It’s a little girl’s daddy.

Back to tomorrows: On the day of Mikey’s memorial service, Jennie asked for fellow bloggers to bake her husband’s favorite pie, a luscious chocolate and peanut butter cream pie. She said she’d been meaning to bake it for him for awhile, but kept putting it off to "tomorrow." Jennie asked that readers bake the pie for the Mikeys in their lives, the family and friends that we nourish.

I could have put off making the pie – I didn't have all of the ingredients and I really didn't want to go to the store. I did have the cream and the peanut butter. I didn’t have chocolate wafers, but remembered that I had a pre-made chocolate crust. I didn’t have peanuts, but for some reason had a bag of Reese’s Pieces, the mini-me version of nature's most perfect food, the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. I was also out of dark chocolate. But a pie could be pulled together out of what I had on hand, so I asked Lindsey, who is five, to help and together we made our version of Mikey’s Peanut Butter Pie.

We began by melting white chocolate with a bit of vegetable oil and spreading it in the chocolate cookie crumb pie shell. A generous handful (or two) of Reese's Pieces were sprinkled over the chocolate. In a separate bowl, we whipped together cream cheese, peanut butter and a can of Eagle Brand. We poured the filling into the pie shell and decorated the top of the pie with more Reese's Pieces. The pie went into the fridge to set up for a few hours.

Clockwise from top left: melting chocolate, spreading it in the pie shell, folding in the cream, whipping the filling.
Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Little Bit is always willing to help mix. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Watching my little one in the kitchen, I'm amazed at how "in the moment" she is. No worries about school or friends or family. No thoughts for the future beyond whether she can have some Reese's Pieces and be able to lick the white chocolate off the spatula.

But sometimes, she surprises me. While she places the candies on the top of the filling, she starts talking about change.
"I'm almost six! Everything changes when you're six. I'm going to kindergarten, that's a

change. And summer's almost over, that's a change."

"That's right, sweetie."

I want to stop the time clock and freeze this frame forever.

Go to In Jennie's Kitchen and check out her recipe for Creamy Peanut Butter Pie. I'm not including the recipe here because I really tinkered with it - her original is a beautiful pie, mine was kind of cobbled together. I used a pre-made crust and reduced the sugar in the filling. I substituted Reese's Pieces for the peanuts and used more of the candy as a garnish instead of a chocolate drizzle. If you have a few minutes, take some time and read Jennifer's words and look at the pictures of her beautiful family.

Jennifer, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family during this sad time. Thank you for sharing Mike's life and your family moments - they are treasures.

The perks of hanging out in the kitchen with Mom. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kid-friendly sushi idea

Barbara Beery knows how to throw a party. The author of 12 cookbooks, including her latest, “The Pink Princess Party Cookbook,” (Simon & Schuster, 2011), has more than two decades experience entertaining children with creative theme parties in her hometown of Austin, Texas.

Barbara Beery, author of "The Pink Princess Party Cookbook" (Simon & Schuster, 2011)
 She hosted her first Pink Princess Party when her now-grown daughter was just four years old and its success led to a party-planning business and a culinary store, Kids Cooking Shop. Beery’s ideas are simple and time-tested, “Every recipe has been used in my parties and in my store,” Beery said of the 34 recipes and crafts featured in the book. “I keep the ideas simple so that kids can be a part of the party. That’s a big deal.”

“The Pink Princess Party Cookbook” features six princess-themed parties, including a Spa Princess Party with a a Sparkling Princess Body Lotion and two flip-flop crafts. The menu includes Spa-Te-Dah Fruit Tea, Chocolate-Dipped Marshmallow Wands and this clever sushi recipe made from sandwich bread, carrots and apples. Serve with fruit tea or Snow Princess Punch.

Enchanted Sushi Roll-Ups from "The Pink Princess Party Cookbook" Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Enchanted Sushi Roll-Ups

6 slices whole-wheat bread, crusts removed

¼ cup soft-spread cream cheese

3 tablespoons sour cream

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

Salt and pepper

12 (6-inch long) carrot matchsticks

24 (3-inch long) peeled apple matchsticks

3 strawberries, minced

1. Place a sheet of parchment paper on the countertop. With a rolling pin, lightly roll each bread slice on the paper to flatten it.

2. Mix together the cream cheese, sour cream, mustard, honey and salt and pepper to taste. Spread over each bread slice.

3. Lay 2 carrot matchsticks and 2 apple matchsticks across the bottom of each slice of bread, letting the fruit and veggies hang over the sides. Roll up the bread, pressing gently to seal. With a serrated-edge knife, cut each roll into 4 equal pieces.

4. Garnish with the strawberries and serve.

The sushi roll-ups are a clever and tasty lunchbox item. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

From “The Pink Princess Party Cookbook” (Simon and Schuster, published 2011). Spiral bound, 64 pages, list price $15.99. A review copy was provided by the publisher. I did not receive compensation for this post. My opinions are my own. And I happen to think they're excellent.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Think pink for birthday parties

Pink Princess Punch by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

It seems like every little girl dreams of a pink princess birthday party, at least for the few years, between Elmo and Phineas & Ferb. Kids Cooking Shop owner and cookbook author Barbara Beery knows this because for 20 years, she has produced countless Pink Princess Parties for families in Austin, Texas.

Simon and Schuster just published Beery's 12th cookbook, “Pink Princess Party Cookbook," in which the party planner shares 34 of her time-tested recipes for making the perfect little girl's birthday party.

Barbara Beery, author of "The Pink Princess Party Cookbook" (Simon and Schuster, 2011)

“Every little girl dreams about being a princess for her birthday,” Beery said by phone last week from her Austin home. “It’s very American, very Disney. It’s that dreamy, Cinderella thing.”

In the book, Beery's recipes are arranged by themes that will delight parents and young birthday girls: Snowflake, Spa, Garden Fairy, Mermaid, Enchanted Pony and the ultimate Pink Princess Party. Each theme includes a craft and recipes for punch, cookies, cakes, sandwiches and treats.

Follow Beery’s advice to make a memorable birthday party: Keep it simple, limit the number of kids to 12 or fewer, and let the children participate in the party. “Kids can easily frost a cupcake at the party,” Beery said. “That saves time for you to work on the party and lets the kids have fun.” Beery recommends her Donut Sundaes, a clever birthday presentation of a scoop of ice cream centered on a frosted donut base.

The cookbook is packed with useful tips and recipes, all using easy-to-find ingredients. “I use simple ingredients, with just a few steps. You’ll probably find that you have most of the ingredients on hand to turn out these parties,” Beery said.

Each theme party in the book includes a fun drink, such as this Snow Princess Punch, brimming with blueberries and frozen mini-marshmallows. Use fresh blueberries and delight the princesses in your house. Serve it with a kid-friendly sushi made of nutritious carrots and apples and flattened sandwich bread.

Pink Princess Punch with frozen marshmallows and blueberries by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Snow Princess Punch

Serves 10 to 12

1 cup mini marshmallows

½ cup white decorating sugar

½ lemon or orange

1 (2 liter) bottle fruit-flavored sparkling water, chilled

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

1. Place mini marshmallows on a cookie sheet. Freeze for two hours or until you are ready to add to the punch.

2. Pour the sugar onto a small plate. Dampen the rim of a large punch bowl and small decorative glasses by rubbing them with a lemon or orange half. Dip the dampened rims into the sugar and set aside until you are ready to serve the punch.

3. Pour the sparkling water into the punch bowl. Add the blueberries and marshmallows. Stir. Serve in the garnished punch cups.

Recipe from "Pink Princess Party Cookbook" by Barbara Beery. (Simon and Schuster, 2011). Spiral bound, 64 pages, list price $15.99. A review copy was provided by the publisher. I did not receive compensation for this post. My opinions are my own. And I happen to think they're spot-on.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Scenes from Sweet Auburn Curb Market

Sweet Auburn Curb Market/Photo by Atlanta Culinary Tours

by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tour Atlanta's oldest farmer's market, the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, which has been feeding Atlantans since 1918. My new friends at Atlanta Culinary Tours, Beth and David, guided a group of about a dozen culinary tourists through the market, admiring produce and sampling goodies along the way.

Collards at Sweet Auburn Curb Market/Photo by Atlanta Culinary Tours
 One of my favorite reasons to shop the curb market is collard greens. You can buy them whole and process them yourself, a labor and sink full of love, or buy them bagged and chopped, ready for the pot.

Produce like these turnips is fresh from the farm at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Ciao Boca meatball sandwich by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
One of the first bites of the day was this delicious meatball sandwich made by Deborah, owner of  Ciao Boca, an Italian eatery inside the market.

One of my favorite signs at the market. by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
In these days of nose to tail cooking, the market is the place to get every porcine part, possibly even the oink. Other critter parts are available at the market, signs that I just don't see at my neighborhood Kroger. Not to be missed: a product new to me, rank meat, which is aged salted pork fatback, used for seasoning with Southern vegetables. That's right, a meat product marketed as "rank."

Signs at Sweet Auburn Curb Market by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
The Curb Market is a great place for ingredients and a meal. The market is set up food court style, with restaurants including Tilapia Express Seafood, home of outstanding fried fish. Metro Deli & Soul Food is home to exactly that - soul food specialties such as spicy, tender greens, the mac and cheese my kids wish I knew how to make; and crispy, juicy fried chicken. If you're near downtown Atlanta, pull into the parking lot adjacent to the market and be sure to get your parking ticket validated by a vendor. The first 90 minutes are free - probably the best parking deal in downtown.

Tilapia Express Seafood at Sweet Auburn Curb Market by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Get a plate of Southern goodness at Metro Deli and Soul Food. By Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Barbecue fans take note: Sweet Auburn Barbecue just opened in the market.
Sweet Auburn Barbecue by Lucy MercerA A Cook and Her Books
After your soul food cravings are satisfied, check out some of the quirkier items at the market, folk remedies such as this Georgia specialty: white dirt.

White dirt, a.k.a. kaolin, available at Sweet Auburn Curb Market. By Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

White dirt is kaolin, a clay mined in South Georgia that has commercial applications in the paper, paint and rubber industries. It's also consumed as kind of an earthy antacid. If you've ever heard the expression "clay-eater," this is where it comes from. And if you're wearing your smarty pants, you already know that clay-eating is a form of geophagy ("earth eating") and pica (eating of non-food items).

Which brings us to another popular folk remedy, the golden elixir known as Wild Bill's Yellow Root Tea, a tonic used to lower blood pressure and treat diabetes.

Wild Bill's Yellow Root Tea by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Wild Bill's is a convenience product, you may prefer to make your own, using freshly harvested yellow root, also available at the market. I love the homemade signs!

Yellow root at Sweet Auburn Curb Market by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

There's plenty more at the market, including the best pralines I ever ate, made by Louisianan Dionne Gant at Miss D's New Orleans Pralines. I didn't realize how grainy my homemade pralines were until I tasted hers - smooth, creamy, sweet-but-not-too, featuring Georgia grown pecans. (I'll return there during Christmastime for sweet stocking stuffers.)

Miss D's New Orleans Pralines/Sweet Auburn Curb Market
 Start your day at Cafe Campesino, just inside Sweet Auburn Curb Market. We sampled hummingbird scones, a novel take on the Southern banana cake with pineapple and pecans, and some bracing brews from the selection of fair trade beans.

Cafe Campesino/Sweet Auburn Curb Market

Sweet Auburn Bakery by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 The sweet stuff is abundant at the Curb Market. Sweet Auburn Bakery is justifiably famous for its sweet potato cheesecake.

Time to disclose that Atlanta Culinary Tours allowed me (and my mom!) to take the tour gratis. If you're looking for a weekend activity, check out their list of tours. For $32 a person, you fill your brain and belly with Sweet Auburn lore and love. An excellent date, with a special someone, or your mom (we had a blast!).

Sweet Auburn Curb Market is located at 209 Edgewood Ave. SE near downtown Atlanta and is easily reached from the connector. Pull into the parking lot and get your parking ticket validated - the first 90 minutes are free.