I have enjoyed being in the kitchen since I was a young girl. I do not feel that cooking is a chore but rather a way to express my creativity. I am not artistic in any way shape or form, cannot hold a tune and I dance like Elaine in the infamous Seinfeld episode when she was at an office party. However, in the kitchen it is an entirely different story. Here I can experiment, create my own dishes and act like I have discovered my favorite toy when I use a new ingredient. I even dance and sing in this room. I wouldn’t call my kitchen a sanctuary as my gardens fill that bill as well as my beloved potting shed (the woman cave).
I have mentioned before that a friend gave me a bumper sticker that says “Love people ~ cook them tasty food”. Good motto to stand by. It’s all about being with those you love and bringing them to your table to feed them something you lovingly prepared. My husband craves my gumbo and yesterday I stood at the cook top lost in my thoughts while stirring the roux. It was like meditation ~ clearing my mind of any stressful thoughts. When it came time to eat, the expression on his face made it all worthwhile. THAT is what I am talking about.
Learning about cooking is a favorite hobby as well. If you read the About Me page on the blog you will know that I attended a week-long culinary boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York with my dear friend Miriam. It was intense but at the same time pleasurable and I brought home advanced skills in which I apply almost daily now. Another dear friend Linda and I attended a course in French cooking at a local college that we discovered after a few weeks to be just mainly demonstrations from the chef. I probably will never prepare crepes anyway! We did have fun and I can honestly say that I came away with some new recipes that I still make to this day (celery root salad for example).
Of course there are the pros that I look to for inspiration. Ian Campbell, executive chef/owner of Bistro Poplar here in Cambridge creates the most amazing seasonal menus. I always seek great tips from him on what to prepare with a dish for an interesting presentation. Think Lion mane mushrooms! I thought that Ian had not accepted my challenge to use okra but I never selected the Thursday night specials ~ my mistake. He used okra several times as part of those meals in the summer…oh so sorry my friend. Bistro is always our go-to restaurant and I can honestly say that there are times that we have sampled every item on the menu in a season. Never disappoints. Ian, I wish I had the skill to work in your kitchen and learn from you. But then of course there is the bartending position ~ haha Nat! http://www.bistropoplar.com.
Sebastiaan Zijp, my friend and owner of the Farmer’s Hands in Asheville, NC took his experiences of executive chef in a popular restaurant in NYC (winning a James Beard award) and then his year on a pig farm to create his own farm to table business. He is an entrepreneur, farmer, chef and host of amazing, sold out dinners at his farm/bed and breakfast. Sebastiaan has truly found his niche and an absolute delight to spend time with. I recently had the opportunity to help him with his latest dinner but unfortunately, I was not able to accompany his mother/my friend Miriam at the time. Remember Bas, the vinegar in the Thanksgiving gravy? I never leave it out now. The rich bite it added will never be forgotten. Please refer to his website www.thefarmershands.com.
And then there is Steve Konopelski. He co-owns a bed and breakfast here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland named Turnbridge Point. Steve is a pastry chef extraordinaire and will be on the Food Network Holiday Baking Championship airing on November 1st. Check it out and root for Steve ~ he is sweet, funny and oh so talented. Steve also teaches cooking classes in Denton, MD in which I plan to participate in shortly. Basically, I suck at baking and have never been able to make pastry. I know he will make that difference in those skills. See you soon and best of luck! www.turnbridgepoint.com.
So lately, I have been pressing on trying to cook ALL of the recipes that I have collected in ten years. Crazy, right? My friend Willem, a.k.a. Lem suggested that I write about capers. He claims that they have beneficial aphrodisiac properties. Hmmm… Anyway, capers are an accessory to food; like ‘jimmies’ to an ice cream sundae. I do love their tangy flavor and as an accompaniment to a dish it is all about the caper.
Capers are deep green flower buds from the Mediterranean Capparis spinosa bush don’t ya know. They never reach the flower stage as capers are picked prior to bloom and then sun-dried and brined. Who doesn’t love them on a bagel with smoked salmon, onion and cream cheese? Some cooks believe that capers should be rinsed prior to use but I think Julia Child would be horrified. The saltier the better! Think of her throwing HUGE amounts of salt as a ‘pinch’ in a dish on her shows.
The briny, salty flavor of capers lends itself to spicing up sauces and condiments. Just a little goes a very long way. Of course they make a great garnish for meat and vegetables too. I have seen them described as having a delicate texture but quite frankly they look like dark peas to me (some of you know how I feel about peas). Because of their pungent flavor, capers are a terrific ingredient in a salad dressing or sauce. Let us begin…
There are classic dishes like eggplant caponata that call for capers but I am suggesting testing your new caper waters with very simple recipes. Make an easy tapenade and spread it on crackers or my personal favorite for hors d’oeuvres, crostini. Toss it with your pasta of choice and add a few tomatoes from the garden. The possibilities are endless.
Ali’s Olive, Caper and Anchovy Spread
- 1 cup black pitted Kalamata olives
- 1 T. capers, drained
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 T. anchovy paste*
- pinch of fresh thyme
- olive oil
- Salt/pepper to taste
- Place first 5 ingredients in food processor, pulse to combine.
- Add enough olive oil while processing to create a paste.
- Season to taste.
*I use anchovy paste as I find anchovy filets to have an overwhelming fishy taste that takes over most dishes. Substitute 5-6 filets for paste if you prefer.
Ali’s Caper Vinaigrette
- 2 tsp. capers, drained
- 2 tsp. sweet onion, finely minced
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
- Juice of one fresh lemon
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- Combine first 5 ingredients in a small deep bowl.
- Slowly add oil while whisking constantly.
- Season to taste.
This dressing pairs well with the peppery bite of arugula and also the tart sweetness of citrus fruits. I love this vinaigrette on fresh asparagus in the spring served with lamb but it also adds amazing bold flavor to other roasted vegetables. Nice for dipping steamed artichoke leaves in too.
Last but not least is a basic lemon caper sauce ~ so classic that I can’t call it my own and really this is what chicken piccata is. Brown some chicken pieces in a little butter and oil in a skillet. Reduce heat and cook through. Remove chicken but leave the browned bits to enhance the caper sauce.
Lemon Caper Sauce
- 1/3 cup dry vermouth or white wine
- 3 T. fresh lemon juice
- 2 T. capers
- Salt/pepper to taste
- 1 T. fresh parsley, chopped
- Add first 4 ingredients to the pan with the browned chicken bits.
- Simmer until reduced.
- Add parsley when ready to serve over chicken.
You could add cream to this sauce to increase the richness, caloric and fat content. If you use this with sautéed fish, throw in a little dill as well. Simple.
So give it a whirl and try one of these. Make a main dish, a salad or the spread and you won’t be disappointed in any of the above recipes. In regards to capers being an aphrodisiac, the Romans thought most foods contained those qualities. A reliable source (LOL – Cosmopolitan magazine!) did not include capers on the list of top ten foods to enhance your sex life. Can’t help you with that. Good luck and just have fun!